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An ancient language from 1958 lives on and is used to solve modern problems in programming and computer science.

In the mid to late 1950s, John McCarthy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had a problem to solve. As part of an artificial intelligence project, he needed a programming language that could process lists of data. Sentences structured in a formal way would represent information about the world. The computer would navigate and process lists of sentences to mimic human reasoning, for example, the ability to answer a question by comparing possible sentences organized into lists.

In simplistic English, if you are a computer and your program asks you what to do if you are cold and hungry, you take a list of possible outcomes then navigate the list to find a reasonable result. If you are cold, for example, your processing would gravitate towards sentences related to warmth and avoid sentences related to cold.

The problem for McCarthy? No suitable software language to work with lists existed. McCarthy had to create his own language.

But a funny thing happened next. McCarthy created his language which he called Lisp, shorthand for List Processing. And, as Paul Graham put it, McCarthy did for programming what Euclid did for Geometry. He built a programming language from simple operators and a notation system for functions. But the parts of the language he thought most important, the m-expressions for handling math syntax, turned out to be least important to people who used Lisp. And one of the lesser parts of McCarthy’s language, s-expressions used to describe data, went on to influence a number of programming languages for fifty years and counting.

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