Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fifty Years Ago

The character-reading functions make it possible to read characters one by one from data records. The choice of input medium is determined by sense switch 1, though at a future time mode-set facilities may be added so that input may be taken from any medium. This description will be given in terms of hollerith cards [sic] as input; the procedure for tape is completely analogous. However, the tape records must be 72 characters long.
Paul Abrahams, Artificial Intelligence Project
RLE and MIT Computation Center Memo 22a
Character-Handling Facilities in the LISP System

In the months following McCarthy's initial description of ‘A Symbol Manipulating Language’, Steve Russell translated McCarthy's eval into IBM 704 machine code and the first LISP was born. By 1961 the implementation of Lisp 1.5 was well under way and a number of new libraries were being written.

Hollerith cards were the main input medium in those days. They were a step up from punched paper tape, though. In fact, punched cards were pretty much the only input medium until online input became available.
Paul Abrahams, personal correspondence

Lisp had read, eval, and print, but the computer itself was shared by the MIT Community. You would submit your card deck for processing and come back some time later to get the printout.  The REPL was run in batch mode.