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The Making of Python
A Conversation with Guido van Rossum, Part I
by Bill Venners
January 13, 2003

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ABC's Influence on Python

Bill Venners: Could you give a brief history of Python?

Guido van Rossum: In the early 1980s, I worked as an implementer on a team building a language called ABC at Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica (CWI). I don't know how well people know ABC's influence on Python. I try to mention ABC's influence because I'm indebted to everything I learned during that project and to the people who worked on it.

ABC's design had a very clear, sharp focus. ABC was intended to be a programming language that could be taught to intelligent computer users who were not computer programmers or software developers in any sense. During the late 1970s, ABC's main designers taught traditional programming languages to such an audience. Their students included various scientists—from physicists to social scientists to linguists—who needed help using their very large computers. Although intelligent people in their own right, these students were surprised at certain limitations, restrictions, and arbitrary rules that programming languages had traditionally set out. Based on this user feedback, ABC's designers tried to develop a different language.

Another source of frustration for ABC's designers was Basic. At the time, Basic was a fairly crippled language. Although in a sense Basic was aimed at the same audience, non-programmers using computers, it came from a different language design perspective. The Basic versions available at the time were horrible. Almost any interesting Basic program was full of low-level hacks, where one had to poke memory byte 714 to change the screen background color to yellow.

Bill Venners: I remember doing that. When were you working on ABC?

Guido van Rossum: ABC's authors started designing the language in the late 70s and early 80s. I joined the team in 1983. I think we worked until 1986 or 1987. For various reasons, the ABC project wasn't a big success. Maybe it was too early, before there was an Internet to do efficient distribution.

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