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Working for the Burroughs Corporation


Writing a compiler for the Burroughs Corporation
Donald Knuth Scientist
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During the summer, between… between Case in Cleveland and Caltech in Pasadena, I had a summer job of writing... writing compilers, this algebraic… this... this software that converts algebraic language into machine language. I had a job writing a compiler for Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs was headquartered in Pasadena – I mean the Burroughs Division that… that was dealing with software was headquartered in Pasadena – and Case had recently installed a Burroughs computer that I liked very much, during my senior year. Some people from Thompson Ramo Wooldridge approached me and said, ‘Don, we understand that you can write compilers. We're going to put in a proposal to Burroughs to write a compiler for their machine ( the… the Burroughs 205) for a language called ALGOL’, which was just… just being invented at that time – the ALGOrithmic Language an international standard, that was supposed to replace FORTRAN, the most popular language at the time. And so Thompson Ramo Wooldridge was… made a proposal to Burroughs for I believe it was $70,000, to create a ALGOL compiler for the Burroughs 205. The people who made this proposal really, though, were clueless about how to write compilers, so they hired me, a… a Case Senior, to… to do the job, because they had heard that I knew how to do it. I had done this RUNCIBLE and a… and a couple of versions of… of other software at Case.  So spring of my Senior year, they… they are showing me… they're… they’re showing me about this… this machine that Burroughs had, and I… and I started playing around with the.. with the computer, and I had learned… got interested in the… in the project, but Burroughs turned them down; they didn't give them the contract.

So after Burroughs said, no, they weren't going to do it with Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, well I…I said, well, wait a minute, I've, maybe I'll write to Burroughs on my own, and I sent them a letter and said, I'll, you know, for $5000 I can write you an ALGOL compiler. Now $5000 was a huge amount of money in 1959… in 1960. I… I mean a… a college professor was making $8000 a year or something like this. So I… I thought $5000 was… was an incredibly rich thing, you know, to… to do. I said to Burroughs… no, I…  except that… I can do it in the summer, except I won't have time to… to implement all of this ALGOL, I'll… I’ll be able to do everything except procedures. I'll be able to, you know… which is actually the hardest thing to do in a compiler… which is of subroutines, the ability to extend the language. Well, they wrote back saying you… we can't have ALGOL without procedures, you've got to put procedures in too. And so I thought about it and said… and figured out, oh yeah… ‘Okay, I see how I can do it, but you'll… you’ll have to pay me $5500, instead of $5000’. So they said, ‘Okay’.

So I spent the summer of 1960, that's after… after graduating from Case, I spent the summer writing this compiler for… for ALGOL, for the Burroughs 205.  And…  and I wrote it… but really I… I had it only in pencil and paper, I didn't have it… I didn’t have it ready to go, and… and then I would take it with me as I went out to Pasadena, and work on it there when I was at the Burroughs plant in Pasadena. So on my… on my way out West I had a little Volkswagen, that my … I had gotten from my parents, and I drove 100 miles a day, and got a motel, and sat down, and wrote code, wrote software, and… and took 30 days to drive from Milwaukee to… to Pasadena, every day writing a little bit of this software. Then I got to Pasadena, and… and had all my code… had all my notes, and started putting it on to punched cards, and you know, debugging it and by Christmas time I had their compiler for them, and… and it was a machine that didn't sell very well, so there weren't too many places in the world, but I… I heard for the next 10 years that people in Brazil were still using it a lot, and… and so it was a… it was an interesting experience for me, but the most important, from my point of view, was I had $5500, which was enough to get married.
And so… so in the summer of '61 Jill and I got married, and… and it paid for our honeymoon trip in Europe, which was our first time seeing… seeing the world.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Caltech, Case Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Burroughs Corporation, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, Milwaukee, Brazil, Europe, Jill Knuth

Duration: 5 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008