It has been said that all we ever learn from studying History is that mankind learns nothing from History.
Students of programming language standardization may be interested in the following extract from The Emperor's Old Clothes - the ACM Turing Award lecture by Tony Hoare, 1980, which seems particularly relevant to our tale. You can read the full article in Comm ACM 24(2), 75-83 (1981); it has also been reprinted in "Essays in Computing Science" (edited by Hoare and Jones, Prentice-Hall 1989, ISBN 013 284027 8)
Hoare is writing about Algol 68. Did anybody ever really use Algol 68?
"During the period, August 1962 to October 1966, I attended every meeeting of the IFIP ALGOL working group. After completing our labours on the IFIP ALGOL subset, we started on the design of ALGOL X, the intended successor to ALGOL 60. More suggestions for new features were made and in May 1965, Niklaus Wirth was commissioned to collate them into a single language design. I was delighted by his draft design which avoided all the known defects of ALGOL 60 and included several new features, all of which could be simply and efficiently implemented, and safely and conveniently used.
The description of the language was not yet complete. I worked hard on making suggestions for its improvement and so did many other mambers of our group. By the time of the next meeting in St Pierre de Chartreuse, France in October 1965, we had a draft of an excellent and realistic language design which was published in June 1966 as "A Contribution to the Development of ALGOL", in the Communications of the ACM. It was implemented on the IBM 360 and given the title ALGOL W by its many happy users. It was not only a worthy successor of ALGOL 60, it was even a worthy predecessor of Pascal.
At the same meeting, the ALGOL committee had placed before it, a short, incomplete and rather incomprehensible document, describing a different, more ambitious and, to me, a far less attractive language. I was astonished when the working group, consisting of all the best-known international experts of programming languages, resolved to lay aside the commissioned draft on which we had all been working and swallow a line with such an unattractive bait.
This happened just one week after our inquest on the 503 Mark II software project. I gave desperate warnings against the obscurity, the complexity, and over-ambition of the new design, but my warnings went unheeded. I conclude that there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.
The first method is far more difficult. It demands the same skill, devotion, insight, and even inspiration as the discovery of the simple physical laws which underlie the complex phenomena of nature. It also requires a willingness to accept objectives which are limited by physical, logical, and technological constraints, and to accept a compromise when conflicting objectives cannot be met. No committee will ever do this until it is too late.
So it was with the ALGOL committee. Clearly the draft which it preferred was not yet perfect. So a new and final draft of the new ALGOL language design was promised in three months' time; it was to be submitted to the scrutiny of a subgroup of four members including myself. Three months came and went, without a word of the new draft. After six months, the subgroup met in the Netherlands. We had before us a longer and thicker document, full of errors corrected at the last minute, describing yet another, but to me equally unattractive, language. Niklaus Wirth and I spent some time trying to get removed some of the deficiencies in the design and in the description, but in vain. The completed final draft of the language was promised for the next meeting of the full ALGOL committee in three months' time.
Three months come and went - not a word of the new draft appeared. After six months, in October 1966, the ALGOL working group met in Warsaw. It had before it an even longer and thicker document, full of errors corrected at the last minute, describing equally obscurely yet another different, and to me equally unattractive, language. The experts in the group could not see the defects of the design and they firmly resolved to adopt the draft believing it would be completed in three months. In vain, I urged them to remove some of the technical mistakes of the language, the predominance of references, the default type conversions. Far from wishing to simplify the language, the working group actually asked the authors to include even more complex features like overloading of operators and concurrency.
When any language design project is nearing completion, there is always a mad rush to get new features added before standardization. The rush is mad indeed, because it leads in to a trap from which there is no escape. A feature which is omitted can always be added later, when its design and its implications are well understood. A feature which is included before it is fully understood can never be removed later.
At last, in December 1968, in a mood of black depression, I attended the meeting in Munich at which our long-gestated monster was to come to birth and receive the name ALGOL 68. By this time, a number of other members of the group had become disillusioned, but too late: The committee was now packed with supporters of the language, which was sent up for promulgation by the higher committees of IFIP. The best we could do was to send with it a minority report, stating our considered view that, "...as a tool for the reliable creation of sophisticated programs, the language was a failure." This report was later suppressed by IFIP, an act which reminds me of the lines of Hilaire Belloc,
But scientists who ought to know,
Assure us that it must be so.
Oh, let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about.
I did not attend any further meetings of that working group."