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Douglas McIlroy

Library: Douglas McIlroy

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An Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth, M. Douglas McIlroy retired in 1997 from the Computing Sciences Research Center at Bell Laboratories (formerly AT&T, now Lucent Technologies). At Bell Labs he headed the Computing Techniques Research Department from 1965 to 1986, and thereafter served as Distinguished Member of Technical Staff. Best known as the birthplace of the Unix operating system, the Computing Techniques Research Department did wide-ranging theoretical and applied research in programming languages, compilers, operating systems, design verification, algorithms, computational complexity, text processing, graphics, image processing, and computer security.

In the area of computer languages, McIlroy participated in the design of PL/I (a general purpose programming language of the 1060's), contributed to C++, and wrote unusual compilers for PL/I, Lisp, Altran (an algebraic manipulation system), and TMG (a compiler-writing tool). Long interested in data-stream processing, he conceived Unix "pipes" (which allow programs to work together with no knowledge of each other), invented the classic coroutine prime-number sieve, and developed algorithms for processing power series. Other research topics include text and string processing, computer cartography, theorem proving, and dynamic storage allocation. The notion of "language extension" arose from his early work in macroprocessors, and "software components" from a 1968 NATO paper. In a lighter vein, he coauthored Darwin, the first game of survival among self-reproducing programs. His more recent research addressed multilevel security for Unix, ultimately accurate bitmap graphics, and full-text indexing.

He contributed to the design and construction of the Multics operating system. To Unix he contributed many utilities and subroutines, ranging from the lowly "echo", through "diff" for file comparison, "spell" for checking spelling, and "join" for database manipulation, to "speak", the first real-time text-to-speech program.

McIlroy joined Bell Laboratories in 1958 after earning a bachelor's degree in engineering physics from Cornell University and a PhD in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He taught while at MIT, and was a visiting lecturer at Oxford University from 1967 to 1968.

He served the Association for Computing Machinery as national lecturer, Turing award chairman, member of the publications planning committee, and associate editor for the Communications of the ACM, the Journal of the ACM, and ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems. He also served on the executive committee of CSNET (an evolutionary stage between the exclusive ARPANET and the public Internet), on various advisory panels to the Department Defense, the New Jersey Board of Higher Education, and the National Science Foundation, and on visiting committees at Argonne National Laboratories, Syracuse University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He was a coaauthor of National Research Council reports on computer security ("Computers at Risk", 1990) and directions for academic computer science ("Computing the Future", 1992). He is a past officer of the New York Map Society, a founding member of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies working group on programming methodology (WG2.3), and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 2004 the Usenix Association presented McIlroy its lifetime achievement award "for over fifty years of elegant contributions to Unix and programming", and also its Software Tools User Group award. In 2006 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

In his previous home town of Bernardsville, New Jersey, McIlroy served as chairman of the shade tree commission, chairman of the environmental commission, alternate member of the planning board, and trustee of the public library. He now lives in Hanover, NH, where he serves on the conservation commission and chairs the trails committee.

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