John McCarthy dead at 84; creator of Lisp and namer of AI

October 24th, 2011

Computer Science pioneer John McCarthy died at his home in his sleep on Monday. He was 84. He is noted for creating the Lisp programming language, making ground-breaking contributions to Artificial Intelligence (including naming the field), adding important results to the mathematical theory of computation, and helping to develop computer time sharing. He studied mathematics under John Nash at Princeton

McCarthy held the first “computer-chess” match in the mid-1960s between scientists in the US and the USSR, transmitting the moves by telegraph. The soviet team ran on inferior hardware and used Claude Shannon’s brute-force Type-A strategy while the MIT team had an IBM 7090 implemented Shannon’s more sophisticed Type-B approach that used a heuristic plausible move generator. The Soviets won.

McCarthy was born in 1927 in Boston and taught himself higher math using Caltech textbooks when his family moved to the area, allowing him to take advanced classes when he enrolled as a teenager. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1951.

He won the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1972 and the National Medal of Science in 1991. Over the years, he held faculty appointments at Princeton, M.I.T., Dartmouth, and Stanford University, where he spend his las 39 years.