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And In The Beginning…

I’m on my second pass through Bjarne Stroustrup’s “The Design And Evolution Of C++“. In the book, which was published exactly 20 years ago in 1994, Bjarne discloses all of the “whys” and “hows” that drove the growth of C++ up to the time of the book’s publication.

DE Cover


In the beginning, before there was C++ there was the even-more-nerdly-named “C With Classes” (CWC). Bjarne’s motivation for creating CWC was, as many inventions are, rooted in frustration:

This was exactly the kind of problem that I had become determined never again to attack without the proper tools. – Bjarne Stroustrup

The problem Bjarne refers to in the above quote was: “the task of exploring if/how the UNIX kernel could be distributed over a network of LAN-connected computers“. The preceding “never again” problem was for achieving his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge University: “to study alternatives for the organization of system software for distributed systems“. Notice how the word “distributed” appears in both problems – and this was way back in the 70’s when bell bottoms were in fashion and prior to the rise of multi-core processor technology.

How To Unix

Even though he didn’t say why he chose the tool for his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis project, Bjarne used Nygaard and Dahl’s Simula programming language to code up a program for “simulating software running on a distributed system“. If you already know the history of C++, you won’t be surprised at Bjarne’s feelings for Simula or why he imported some of its key features into CWC:

It was a pleasure to write that simulator. The features of Simula were almost ideal for the purpose, and I was particularly impressed by the way the concepts of the language helped me think about the problems in my application. The class concept allowed me to map my application concepts into the language constructs in a direct way that made my code more readable than I had seen in any other language. The way Simula classes can act as co-routines made the inherent concurrency of my application easy to express.

Class hierarchies were used to express variants of application-level concepts. The use of class hierarchies was not heavy, though; the use of classes to express concurrency was much more important in the organization of my simulator.

During writing and initial debugging, I acquired a great respect for the expressiveness of Simula’s type system and its compiler’s ability to catch type errors.

In the above book quotes, we see the “whys” for:

  • The appearance of the “Classes” word in “C With Classes“.
  • CWC’s’s support for an object oriented programming style
  • CWC’s static type system.

In contrast to Simula’s elegant expressiveness, its compile time and runtime performance were abysmal (garbage collection + runtime type checking + built-in concurrency = slooow). The runtime performance was so poor that Bjarne had to rewrite his simulator in low-level BPCL at the last second in order to get any meaningful results out of the program to stuff into his Ph.D. thesis.

Although there were several other pragmatic reasons for the appearance of the “C” in “C With Classes” (flexibility, ubiquity of available compilers, direct mapping of data to the hardware, simple linkage and runtime systems), performance ultimately drove the decision to use the well known and proven C language as ground zero for CWC – despite its funky syntactic quirks and unsafe features.

Curiously, support for concurrency was provided in CWC’s very first library in 1980. Concurrency appeared in the form of a tasking library and built-in support for two special functions recognized by the preprocessor: call() and return(). If defined by the programmer for a class, these functions would get implicitly invoked prior to entry and prior to exit of every class member function except for the constructor/destructor. They were required by the monitor class in the tasking library to acquire and release a lock for precluding data races.  Interestingly, the call() and return() functions were later removed because “nobody used them but me“. We’d have to wait until 2011 for concurrency to return to C++ in the form of new libraries.

On exiting this post, I’d like to show you this e-mail exchange with Bjarne regarding the possibility of a book sequel in the near future:

DE Sequel

Why not join an e-mail campaign to get Bjarne started on D&E II? So, go ahead. E-mail Bjarne like I did and plead with him to start penning the sequel. The 20 year trek from 1994 to 2014 has got to be filled with as many great “hows” and “whys” as D&E I.

Categories: C++ Tags: , , ,
  1. October 1, 2014 at 10:39 am

    I also loved the book, a highly entertaining and insightful read.

    While I would also love to see a second edition (or sequel?) covering the time past the initial standardization attempts, I can understand why it’s not Bjarne’s highest priority to write it. After all, standardization is more or less an open process, and the vast majority of design decisions that happened after ’94 can be tracked down by digging through the proposals.
    But of course proposal-speak is seldomly as pleasant to read as Bjarne’s prose.

    At least we still have the excellent HOPL papers. While they are not as detailed as D&E, I found them to be an excellent supplement to the book. Both papers are available on Bjarne’s homepage:



    • October 1, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      Thx for stopping by and posting the great links.

  2. October 1, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I too was struck by the concurrency support since the very beginning. At the language level the ideas for concepts/constraints in D&E seem telling. Really, except for the actual history of how these features have been/are being being added I thing D&E presages almost everything. Maybe not lambdas.

  3. October 1, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    So Bjarne tells you he doesn’t even have time for writing a book, and the best think you think of is to start a campaign to flood his email account with selfish requests?

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