back to article And the Turing Award for best compilation goes to... Jeffrey Ullman and Alfred Aho

This year’s Turing Award has gone to two men who helped create the foundation on which modern software is built. Jeffrey Ullman and Alfred Aho first met when doing their PhDs at Princeton University in the early 1960s; a time when computing machines were devices operated and programmed by a relatively small group of …

  1. John Gamble

    This is well deserved, but what took the ACM so long? I was honestly surprised that they hadn't already won the award.

    1. mevets

      eventual consistency?

      This reply might show up twice.

      Sad the original didn't note Aho's contribution to AWK,

      1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge


        it's a bit tricky tracking and listing all of their achievements, though I've added Awk to our piece.


        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: Awkward

          And after forty years, I see how it got its name!

          1. Martin Gregorie

            Re: Awkward

            ymmv, but in my experience awk kicks the crap out of other programs designed to do the same job. The only one I think comes near it is NCC Filetab, which was around on ICL kit around 1970 and is still available for Linux and Windows.

            Where awk is regex based, filetab uses a decision table to specify the data selection and manipulation you want.

            I've used and dislike one or two other pretenders for this task space (RPG3 and sed): neither can match awk for ease of use and readability.

            1. Colin Bull 1
              Thumb Up

              Re: Awkward

              "And if you've ever used Awk, know that Aho created that with Peter Weinberger and Brian Kernighan in 1977"

              The AWK book on my bookshelf is the most used and educational volume I have ever come across. My 3 heroes.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Awkward

            As they wrote in their preface: "paucity of imagination"

            Now get the book, read the whole preface, and the rest of the book.

  2. Tom Chiverton 1

    '67 ?

    Grace Hopper wrote compilers in the 50s.... might be worth noting that in a piece that leads with "these guys did foundational work on compilers" what it was they added ?

    1. disgruntled yank

      Re: '67 ?

      I am not a historian of compiler theory, but I should say that they summarized and synthesized a lot of what was out there. The bibliography in my copy of the Dragon Book runs to 28 pages. From the bibliography and notes, I see that Hopper and COBOL do not get a mention, though Backus and Fortran do. I suppose this may have been a matter of perceived influence on compiler development, but I leave it for the qualified to say.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: '67 ?

        Compilers are more of a continuum, from assembler with macros to AI optimising monsters of today.

        Cobol is a lot closer to 'assembler with macros', these guys did a lot to invent the steps to get a more 'general theory' of compilers to allow all the modern stuff.

    2. Lars Silver badge

      Re: '67 ?

      As the article goes - "two men who helped create the foundation on which modern software is built.".

      There are many others too before and after.

    3. david 12 Silver badge

      Re: '67 ?

      The big step that opened up computers to a vast array of people who began to write software that now powers just about everything we equate with the modern world was Dartmouth BASIC. At the time there was a split between the SF idea of computers as intelligent thinking machines, and the real world idea of computers that they were big calculators, tabulators, or accounting machines. The world of computing laughed at Kemény for wanting to put computers into the hands of humanities and social science undergraduates: they laughed at Kurtz for thinking it was possible.

      The BASIC compiler that Dartmouth built was complex, fragile and engineered by a brilliant programmer. In the 80's, any undergraduate with an interest could write a BASIC interpreter. The difference was "Principles of Compiler Design".

      EST 7:09PM

  3. MacroRodent


    The Dragon Book is one of the most useful text books I ever had, and directly helped me in my first good job.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Congratulations!

      Although the boxed set of Knuth is far superior for raising your monitor

  4. Julz


    congratulations to them both. I hope that are in a position to appreciate the money. I have a dogeared copy of Design and Analysis of Computer Algorithms sitting on a shelf. It survived the great book cull when I downsized house. Great book that I would recommend to any who wants to do more that piece together web tat.

  5. DrBobK

    I'm an academic psychologist, not a computer scientist, but I read the dragon book years ago because I wanted to understand more about how computers work. It is a marvellous piece of work.

  6. disgruntled yank

    Books by their covers

    With John Hopcroft, Ullman wrote another book of sufficient standing to be known by its cover, namely Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation, the "Cinderella Book".

    1. mevets

      Re: Books by their covers

      My goto insomnia book. Not that the material is boring, but it is so dense that a page or two and I am done....

  7. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

    Compiler design

    It's been more than a few years since I took my compiler design course...and, no, I haven't designed any compilers...but from what I remember, the process of designing a compiler was first to analyse, then tokenise, then compile. I may have the sequence wrong, but there were tools (lex, yacc) for each step. Perhaps this framework for the construction of an arbitrary compiler is what Aho and Ullman contributed? Anyway, the award is well-deserved. Their books made a lasting impact on me - very clear and well written.

    I've spent my time as an Electrical Engineer, but in school we did have an introduction to the softer side of Computer Engineering, and I was impressed by the fact that construction of a compiler from an arbitrary language to an arbitrary assembler was such a well-trodden path.

    Dragon Book is upstairs in the attic, but K&R is on the shelf in front of me, along with Brooks' Mythical Man-Month

  8. Crypto Monad Silver badge

    What happened to Ravi Sethi?

    ... the other co-author of the Dragon Book. He doesn't get a mention :-(

    1. keithpeter Silver badge

      Re: What happened to Ravi Sethi?

      @ Crypto

      Dr Sethi is in honourable retirement from Bell labs and another research based company, and is emeritus professor status in a US university. Seems to have had a good career.

      Later versions of the Dragon book had a variety of co-authors.

  9. MarkMLl

    Vastly wide of the mark

    I don't know who advises the ACM grandees on this sort of thing, but the charitable assumption is that he was working from home and the wrong side of the paywall that protects the ACM archives from plebs like us.

    Everybody agrees that Aho (, Sethi) and Ullman wrote and maintained a comprehensive book describing compiler writing. But crediting them with major contributions to the field?

    What about Irons (recursive ascent), Grau and Waychoff (recursive descent), Knuth (who famously wrote a mainframe ALGOL compiler over his Summer vacation), and Wirth (an undeniable "doer" and influential on just about every major language)? What about Schorre (compiler-compilers) and Richards in the UK (BCPL?) What about Hoare and Dijkstra, who laid much groundwork even if not significant compiler authors in their own right? Hell, what about Alan Kay (Smalltalk)?

    Crediting Aho and Ullman as substantial contributors of original work is vastly wide of the mark, and smacks of the current tendency to lionise "media personalities" and to listen to those who make the most noise.

    1. swm

      Re: Vastly wide of the mark

      In 1964 there was a BASIC compiler (not interpreter) using ad hoc parsing written by J. G. Kemeny and an ALGOL-60 compiler written by Sars Blumpson(sp?) using a recursive descent on the Dartmouth time sharing system. Much of this technology was well distributed in the computing community.

      Writing a text book which made many of these techniques available in a single place is still noteworthy though.

      1. MarkMLl

        Re: Vastly wide of the mark

        Oh I agree: they definitely deserve recognition for collating and documenting the field. But they definitely didn't originate it.

    2. MacroRodent

      Re: Vastly wide of the mark

      Note that about half of the people you mentioned have already won their Turing Awards!

      List here:

      1. MarkMLl

        Re: Vastly wide of the mark

        Yes, that's a good point and one I was thinking about. But I still think that the gushing way in which Aho and Ullman are described by various people quoted in the article, which omits the crucial words "contributed by documenting" etc. isn't really appropriate.

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