Great Works of Software

I was thinking about great works of art attributed to a single person or small group. Things like The David, The 5th Symphony, or Pride and Prejudice. They are each on the short list of the greatest sculpture, classical composition, and novel.

What would the short list for software be? I put together a list, but of course, it is personal to my experience and biases. Here is my top 5 in roughly chronological order.

  • C and UNIX
  • The ARM instruction set
  • TeX
  • VisiCalc
  • Web browser/server

I edited down this list from of about twenty. Notable removals were the collected works of NASA and Pong.

There are some similarities I see that bind them and maybe help to define great works.

  1. They are in wide use over a long period of time. Visicalc is possibly a stretch here, but its influence and core functionality are in 123, Excel, Google Sheets, etc.
  2. They were made to make something else. C was made to make UNIX to make microcomputers. Sophie Wilson used ARM to make microprocessors and Acorn machines. TeX was made to make The Art of Computer Programming. Dan Bricklin made Visicalc as an MBA student to analyze business cases.
  3. They are mostly attributed to a single person or pair. That was true of many of the entries on my list, especially programming languages.
  4. They define languages. Again Visicalc is a stretch, but I do think of Excel as a Programming Language and Microsoft is releasing Power Fx, a language based on spreadsheets.

This combination is also what drove Alan Kay and his team to develop Smalltalk, Object-Oriented programming, GUIs, etc to try to make Dynabooks, so that presumably they could write content in that new medium.

That work led directly to Macs and is even more directly used in NeXT/Objective-C, which is what Tim Berners-Lee used to make the first browser. And if you use it to edit a Google Sheet on an iPad, it’s on a UNIX variant running on ARM, probably using algorithms documented in TAoCP.