Re: RFC 373 and Unicode

From: Juliusz Chroboczek (
Date: Fri Aug 20 1999 - 00:07:57 EDT

John Cowan <>:

JC> RFC 373, "Arbitrary Character Sets", by John McCarthy of the
JC> Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is dated 14 July 1972.
JC> It contains some extremely interesting anticipations, 17 years
JC> ago, of Unicode and the way things are now.

That's an interesting document indeed. Any chance of getting it
referenced in the next edition of the Unicode book?

For people not familiar with the author's name, here's a few notes.
I'm speaking from memory, so I may get the details wrong.

John McCarthy is a prominent logician, and I think that he still works
at Stanford (at any rate, he's still very active). Not being a
logician myself, I won't comment about his main line of research.
While he does not describe himself as a Computer Scientist, his
influence on the area of Computing has been enormous.

In the late 50s, McCarthy's group at SU-AI were experimenting with
those fancy new ``computer'' devices. They were writing machine code,
but unlike other people, they were using a high-level notation to
describe algorithms (on paper). McCarthy used a familiar technique
from logic (analoguous to the use of Goedel numberings or to that of
universal Turing machines) to embed the notation within itself; at
which point, someone noticed that his interpretation was the
description of an algorithm, and therefore could be implemented.
Thus, the first interpreter in history was born (just a couple of
years after the first FORTRAN compilers), and it was to become the
programming language Lisp. While some of the main ideas in Lisp have
already made it into the mainstream of computing 30 years later,
(Smalltalk, Java, and the latest additions to C++ carry the clear mark
of Lisp), many are still to become The Latest Great Thing.

At some point in the 60s, SU-AI received some of those fancy
teletypewriter things. Someone in McCarthy's group had the idea to
hook one of those to a PDP running a Lisp interpreter. This was the
first interactive programming system, a good 15 years before such
systems became commonplace. At around the same time, the Garbage
Collector was invented, again in McCarthy's group. Garbage collection
only hit the mainstream a few years ago (with Java).

In conclusion: if McCarthy came up with the idea of Unicode 30 years
before the it became mainstream, he's only keeping up with his average.


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