Professor Eliot Moss on the Design and Implementation of CLU


In the 1970s, Barbara Liskov, along with her graduate students, Eliot Moss and others created the CLU programming language. Its ideas has been adopted in every programming language we use today.

Luckily, I got to take a compilers class with Prof. Eliot Moss last Spring and ask him about his experience working on the design and implementation of the language. The following was his response1:

Hello, Veera!

> I came across the CLU programming language when researching about how
> iterators came into being and was excited to see that you have contributed
> to the design and implementation of CLU.

Yes, though I came on somewhat in the middle of the language design effort.

> Can you please tell me about your experience working on the language? And
> how do you feel about it now that CLU’s ideas are adopted in almost every
> modern programming language?

Prior to working on Clu I had coded in Basic, Fortran, Lisp, and C. The key
innovation of Clu was its emphasis on abstract data types, which wrapped
together (into a “cluster”, hence the name Clu) a data structure definition
and operations on that data structure into a higher level thing.
Object-orientation is similar in that you can have private parts of your data
structure and then write methods. What OO languages add to what Clu did is
inheritance / extension of one type by another. (Clu did have a nice system
of parameterized types, similar to Java’s type parameters.)

Another nice thing Clu had was a way to extend the builtin operators, like +,
to any data type - we called that “syntactic sugar”. It’s a bit like what you
can do in C++, minus the complicated overloading.

Coming back to what you led with: iterators. We realized that people do like
to iterate over organized collections of things, and also that if we did not
provide something like iterators then data abstraction would not be so nice
since people would tend to expose internal data structure to support the
iteration. Clu’s iterators are as easy to use as those of Java, but much
easier to write because of the yield statement. In Java, you have to come
up with a way of representing the state of the iteration explicitly, while in
Clu it is implicit in the local variables, etc., of the running iterator. It
did require a more co-routine / lambda function kind of implementation (the
caller of an iterator has to provide a place for the iterator to “call” back
into the loop body).

Clu was also a garbage collected language - I wrote the first garbage
collector for it (in assembly language, no less!). Storage management errors,
and just the general mess of tracking your storage, makes it harder to write
programs. In Clu, many of us had the novel experience of having a program
work the first time it compiled (!). Clu’s nice collection of builtin types
and the functions provided for them also made many things easier to code, an
example being strings. (This was part where I took the design lead, as I

Overall, it was quite an elegant language, if I say so myself. And for
someone who works in the PL area, having a grad school experience of being on
a good language design and implementation team was great! I am grateful to
all of them, and of course our advisor and group leader, Barbara Liskov.

Cheers - E



Posting here with his consent.