Documentation: History of the CMUCL Project

This page is derived from an email message from Rob MacLachlan, in response to a question as to the recursive nature of CMUCL bootstrapping. Given that CMUCL requires CMUCL to build itself; how were the first iterations of CMUCL developed?

Lisp implementation work at Carnegie Mellon University started with Spice Lisp as a part of the Spice project (circa 1980). [SPICE stood for Scientific Personal Integrated Computing Environment.] ARPA's funding of Spice Lisp was one of the reasons that ARPA felt it had an interest in some common lisp dialect. This standardization effort came to be called (rather unimaginitively) Common Lisp.

So Spice Lisp was committed to being Common Lisp before anyone knew what that would be. We started calling it CMU Common Lisp when the Spice project ended (around 1985). The code base has gown tremendously and mutated greatly, but some parts, such as the core of RANDOM do go back to the very beginning.

Target machines

The first machine that CMUCL was developed on was the PDP10; this was where the compiler and genesis ran. We also had an instruction-level simulator for the target machine which ran on the PDP10. This was used to debug many core parts of the original runtime.

The PDP-10 computer and its predecessor the PDP-6 computer were, by design, especially well-suited to Lisp because they had 36-bit words and 18-bit addresses. This architecture allowed a cons cell to be stored in one word; single instructions could extract the car and cdr parts. The PDP-6 and PDP-10 had fast, powerful stack instructions that enabled fast function calling. [from lisp.org]

The first target machine was the Perq, which was a microcoded graphics workstation inspired by the Xerox Alto and D-machines. We wrote our own Lisp instruction set in microcode.

Starting in about 1984, we hacked over the the compiler to emit code for the IBM RT PC RISC architecture. This was sort of a post-pass that translated the high-level operations (formerly bytecodes) into assembler. There was about 6000 lines of hand-coded assembly support for the runtime, including bignum arithmetic, etc.

It was in 1985 that I [Rob MacLachlan] started work on Python. This was a total compiler rewrite aimed toward efficient support for multiple "conventional" architectures. People have run the CMUCL compiler code in other Common Lisp implementations, but we never did.

The first Python backend was for the IBM RT PC. This was sort of halfway to the system we know now, since it still used the handcoded assembly runtime. The next backend was for the MIPS in the form of the DEC PMAX workstation. This shook out a lot of problems in the porting model, and was also when we moved everything possible into Lisp (such as bignums). This happened in about 1991.

Next came the SPARC, but initially only under Mach. The first supported operating system that CMUCL ran on was SunOS. After this port was done by volunteer effort, people outside CMU started to use CMUCL. This was around 1992.

This first compiler ran in MacLISP. It was called "xc" for cross-compiler. It did not support full Common Lisp (macros had to be written in MacLISP, and there was no support for lexical closures.) This code evolved into "clc" (Common Lisp Compiler) which self-compiled in Common Lisp.

An interesting example of the process of Lisp specification:

The initial implementation of Common Lisp DEFSTRUCT had to be written in MacLisp, since "xc" ran in MacLisp. This code was initially used under Spice Lisp with minor modifications, but eventually we decided to rewrite it.

This version was written in idiomatic Common Lisp, therefore it used DEFSTRUCT structures to describe the format of DEFSTRUCT structures. This was initially compiled and debugged using the previous DEFSTRUCT implementation, but once it worked, we threw the old code away.

Capabilities of early CMUCL

The Perq had 1 or 2 meg of memory, and the Lisp image was was about 1.5 meg. Code density was high. The loop of NTHCDR was less than 8 bytes. Hemlock was written on this platform, and was widely used by non-lisp programmers because it was the only sophisticated editor that ran on the Perq. Speed was not great. TAK ran initially in 30 seconds, and that was one of our better benchmarks. Floating point performance was measured in Kflops. There was virtual memory (translation done in microcode), and we frequently thrashed. The OS was research, and we frequently crashed.

I believe that Scott Fahlman published a paper somewhere about the bootstrapping path of Spice Lisp. See also:

	author = "Skef Wholey and Scott E. Fahlman",
	title = "The Design of an Instruction Set for Common Lisp",
	booktitle = "ACM Conference on Lisp and Functional Programming",
	year = 1984,
	pages = "150--158")

by Rob MacLachlan

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