Computer History Museum: Preserving Snobol and Spitbol Artifacts

I am one of the small circle of programmers still around to whom the phrases “snow ball” and “spit ball” have special meaning:

  • It’s not about snow or baseball;
  • When I spell them them both end in “bol”, as in “Snobol” and “Spitbol”
  • They are both programming languages
  • Thinking of either makes me think of the color green

Only those who have ever written a program in either of these languages can appreciate the surprise — mixed because it brought both good and bad news — with which I read the following e-mail sent my way by Bob Goldberg, someone I haven’t heard from in well over a decade:

Hi Dave,

It’s been a few years … I hope that you receive this email as I’ve had some trouble locating a live email id for you.

After Ralph Griswold passed away last year I found out that a co-worker at Adobe, Paul McJones, had secured his electronic archives for preservation at the Computer History Museum. Since I have more than a passing interest in preserving Spitbol artifacts I volunteered to assist and have taken on the task of identifying and preserving Snobol artifacts for the CHM.

Do you have any Spitbol (or Snobol) related material that we can preserve? As I remember it you did a Macro Spitbol port for the Cyber, but my memory may be faulty. The CHM can handle all forms of media: paper, mag tape, and even punched cards.

I still have fond memories of the Snobol/Spitbol workshop hosted at NYU about 30 years ago. I remember you and your wife hosted all of us for a dinner at your apartment. I also remember your giving me Jack’s book on compilers, which I still possess today. Thanks again! (I had planned to give it, along with other books, etc, to the CHM, but Al Kossow has already located a copy and scanned it!)

Here are some links that you might find interesting

Computer History Museum: Software Preservation Group

CHM: Cocke and Schwartz

Spitbol 360



The reference to Jack is to Jacob “Jack” Schwartz and relates to the preservation of the text of “Cocke and Schwartz,” one of the seminal works on programming optmization. (Most of the text was written out in longhand while Jack spent several months on jury duty, and was then typed up by Connie Engle, who worked magic for many years at CIMS preparing mathematical manuscripts using the now-forgotten technology of the Selectric typewriter and its type balls, back in the days before Knuth’s Tex defined the standard for publishing scientific manuscripts.)

I worked with Robert B. K. Dewar, co-author (with Ken Belcher) of Spitbol/360 and Macro Spitbol (with Tony McCann), on the implementation of Spitbol for the CDC 6600 and later the IBM PC. Macro Spitbol was written in a pseudo-assembly language called MINIMAL, one of the cleverest and best-documented programming efforts I have ever been involved in.

So I ask anyone who may have SNOBOL or SPITBOL artifacts to heed Bob’s request. For my part, I’ll try to dig up a small colllection of programs that I used to balance my checkbook over a period of about fifteen years, and it would also I think be useful to publish at least the specification of MINIMAL, as it is such a fine piece of writing.

During the course of a career a programmer can expect to learn at least a handful of languages quite well, some less so, and a larger number in a cursory fashion. And those who have been in this game a long time, as have I, always look back on only a few with a special affection, as to study and learn them was to gain new insight into the nature of programming iitself, and why it remains such a compelling activity.

Ralph Griswold was the father of SNOBOL, one of my beloved languages, and anything we can do to honor his work is well worth doing.

Ralph Griswold – may his memory be a blessing.


  1. Posted May 21, 2007 at 08:47 | Permalink | Reply

    Ralph was always patient, thorough, insightful, and so dedicated. We will all miss him and his clever newsletters. But I still use Snobol4 in production even today… behind the scenes at, for example. If I ever stop having fun on the job and retire, then I should have time to finish some work I have started in keeping snobol alive and open source.

  2. Posted May 21, 2007 at 10:46 | Permalink | Reply


    Thanks for the note. I recall your work on “Minnesota SNOBOL4” and I see you are still with IBM and that you help run world community grid, a very worthy cause. I partcipate in the grid by donating spare cycles from my SuSE Linux box.

  3. Posted May 21, 2007 at 10:50 | Permalink | Reply

    FYI, the two posts on SNOBOL/SPITBOL and Ralph Griswold have gotten more reads the first day than any of my other posts over the last several months.

  4. Posted May 21, 2007 at 11:00 | Permalink | Reply


    I forgot to mention I noticed a reference to the violinist Elmar Oliveira on your home page. I’ve heard him play several times at Caramoor (my wife and I have been ushers there for over fifteen years). He is indeed a wonderful violinist.

  5. Posted August 25, 2008 at 12:56 | Permalink | Reply

    I am an “old-timer” as far as CS goes, and I am a huge SNOBOL/SPITBOL fan. In the 1990’s I wrote hundreds of utility programs using the wonderful SPITBOL-386 language.

    I dusted it off a few years ago to do some webpage parsing where I called an external program to read the webpage to a file, then used SPITBOL to parse the page. The SPITBOL program would then decide which web page needed to be read next and call the external program to read the next page, …. It was a blast!

    I’ve tried using PERL, and honestly it will do most of the utility programming that SPITBOL can do, but it’s nowhere near as much fun.

    I’d love to see it make a comeback, but I guess that’s not to be.

One Trackback

  1. […] And Open-Source. I also worked with Robert on several implementations of Spitbol; see for example Computer History Museum: Preserving Snobol and Spitbol Artifacts. I worked with both Ed and Robert on the SETL and NYU Ada/ED […]

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