On The History of Programming

We’re starting this post with a Zen Koan. Here it is, from The Gateless Gate, a 13th century Chinese compilation.

A monk asked the master to teach him.
The master asked, “Have you eaten your rice?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then go wash your bowl”, said the master.
With this, the monk was enlightened.

Cool! We’ll get back to this.

If you are a programmer, and you care about programming, then you should study the history of programming. In fact, for most professionals, I’d argue that studying the history of programming is a better hour-per-hour investment than studying programming itself.

See, the history of programming is different from most other histories. While gravity existed before Newton, and DNA existed before Watson and Crick, programming is literally nothing but the sum of peoples’ historical contributions to programming. It is a field built from nothingness by human thought alone. It is completely artificial.

This leads to a useful fact: every addition to the world of programming, that gained enough traction to be in use today, was created to solve a problem. FORTRAN was created to make assembly coding faster on IBM mainframes. BASIC built on FORTRAN and allowed the same code to be run on different computers. C wasn’t actually based off BASIC, but it kept BASIC’s portability and instead focused on easier, more readable programming. C++ came after C and created object-oriented programming, allowing code re-use across tasks. Java expanded on C++, removing the need to recompile for different computer architectures.

Your favorite programming language is influenced by the contributions and thought patterns of every language before it.

By understanding the problems that birthed each new language, you can appreciate the solutions they offer. Java’s virtual machine was (and is) a Big Deal, the entire reason that Java exists. Learning Java without learning (or at least understanding) C++ robs that internalization from you. And don’t just learn about the languages that inspired your preferred language — learn about the offshoots and derivatives of languages you’re interested in, too. Each language highlights the deficiencies and tradeoffs of its parents and children, and learning Java can be just as useful to a C++ programmer as learning C++ could be to a Java programmer.

Even if you refuse to leave your favorite language, knowledge of its ancestors and children can make you recognize a language’s strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your program to match. And that is a valuable skill.

See, trying to master a programming language without understanding the context it arose from is like trying to understand a Zen Koan without understanding the context in which it’s meant to be read. You can’t.

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