Special Commendation

A Science of Operations.
Machines, Logic and the Invention of Programming


Mark Priestley

As well as awarding the Fernando Gil Prize in 2013, the jury decided to give a special commendation to another of the nominated books. This was Mark Priestley: A Science of Operations. Machines, Logic and the Invention of Programming, Springer, 2011.

Mark Priestley graduated with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from Oxford University in 1979. However, he had been interested in programming from the time of his school days in Edinburgh. He therefore entered the software industry for a while, working as a programmer and analyst. In 1987, however, he transferred to the academic world, taking the job of a lecturer in software engineering at the University of Westminster in London. He published a book on Object Oriented Programming with McGraw-Hill in 1996. This was reissued in a revised form as Practical Object-Oriented Design with UML in 2000, which had a second edition in 2003. Despite this practical involvement in computing, Mark Priestley did not lose his interest in philosophy, and, since about 2000, his main research effort has been in the history and philosophy of computing.

The underlying theme of the present book is the relation between logic and computing. The first 6 chapters cover the work of Babbage, Turing and von Neumann up to the invention of the computer. In the remaining 6 chapters, Mark Priestley takes up the question of programing, dealing first with machine code programming and logic, next with the invention of programming languages, and then with the development of such languages down to 1970.

The jury were very impressed with the subtle and nuanced account, which Mark Priestley gives of the relationship between logic and computing. Priestley recognises the importance of logic for computing, but he stresses that other factors, such as cybernetics, were at work, and that logic in the computing context became something rather different from what it had been before. He discusses the role of logic in languages such as LISP which were specifically designed to have a logical character, and also the influence of logic on more mainstream logic programming languages which occurred through the ALGOL research programme.

The jury thought that Mark Priestley had carried out an important pioneering work in analysing the intellectual development of programming, and that his book raises and discusses many very interesting philosophical questions concerned with programming languages. Given the central role of computing in modern life, the jury thought that Mark Priestley’s book could form the starting point of further important philosophical investigations into the nature of programming and programming languages. For these reasons, they decided to give the book a special commendation.