4 September 1927, Boston, Massachusetts


24 October 2011, Stanford, California


BS mathematics, California Institute of Technology (1948); PhD mathematics, Princeton University (1951).


Private, U.S. Army (1945-1946); Instructor in mathematics, Princeton University (1951-1953); Assistant Professor of mathematics, Stanford University (1953-1955); Assistant Professor of mathematics, Dartmouth College (1955-1958); Assistant Professor of communication science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1958-1962); Professor of mathematics, Stanford University (1962-1965); Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University (1965-2011); Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (1966-1980).


Member of the National Academy of Engineering (1987) and National Academy of Sciences (1989); A.M. Turing Award of the Association for Computing Machinery (1971); Research Excellence Award of the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence (1985); Kyoto Prize (1988); Computer History Museum Fellow (1999); National Medal of Science (1990); he has also received many other honors and prizes from international associations and universities as well as from the United States government.

John McCarthy

United States – 1971

Dr. McCarthy's lecture "The Present State of Research on Artificial Intellegence" is a topic that covers the area in which he has achieved considerable recognition for his work.

John McCarthy was born September 4, 1927 in Boston, Massachusetts to immigrant parents. His father, John Patrick McCarthy, was an Irish Catholic who became a labor organizer and later the Business Manager of the Daily Worker, a national newspaper owned by the Communist Party USA. His mother, Ida Glatt, was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who worked for a wire service, then for the Daily Worker and finally as a social worker.

The family moved to New York City, but John was a sickly child and his parents took him to Los Angeles for his health. There he began reading books on mathematics at the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and when he was admitted there as an undergraduate in 1944 he was given advanced standing. He then was suspended for failing to attend physical education classes and spent some time in the U.S. Army, but still managed to graduate in 1948.

After a year of graduate studies at Caltech he went to Princeton and received a PhD in mathematics in 1951 based on a dissertation that solved a problem in partial differential equations. He taught there until 1953, when he became an assistant professor of mathematics at Stanford until 1955. One of his first major publications was a book (Automata Studies [11]) he and Claude Shannon co-edited during this period.
Having been raised by Communist parents, he became interested in the Soviet Union and developed friendships with several computer scientists there. He also learned to speak Russian and visited the Soviet Union a number of times and, in doing so, became aware of the human rights violations of that regime. He began taking an active role in support of the human rights of computer professionals and, over time, moved further away from Communist ideas. Vera Watson, his second wife, was the daughter of Russian missionaries living in China. She helped persuade him to move further to the right, and he became a conservative Republican. Unfortunately she died in a climbing accident in Nepal while trying to ascend Annapurna.

His work has emphasized epistemological problems—the problems of what information and what modes of reasoning are required for intelligent behavior. Given that McCarthy was primarily a mathematician and technologist who had little use for puffery, it is ironic that his most widely recognized contribution turned out to be in the field of marketing, specifically in choosing a brand name for the field. Having noticed that the title of the Automata Studies book didn’t stir up much excitement, when he subsequently moved to Dartmouth College he introduced the name artificial intelligence at a 1956 conference there [3] and saw that it was embraced both by people working in the field and the general public.

Moving on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1958, he and another Turing Award recipient, Marvin Minsky, formed the Artificial Intelligence Project there, where pioneering work took place in a wide range of fields from robotics, the theory of computation and common sense reasoning [4], to human-computer interfaces. McCarthy also created the LISP (LISt Processor) language [1]. It became an important tool in artificial intelligence research and is still widely used. He also made substantial contributions to the algebraic languages ALGOL 58 and 60.

McCarthy’s students developed the first computer program to convincingly play chess. It ran initially on an IBM 704 computer (later on an IBM 709 and 7090) and incorporated McCarthy’s version of an alpha-beta pruning scheme to reduce the number of positions that had to be considered.

In this period McCarthy observed the nearby development of the SAGE air defense system, which had been initiated by a computer group at MIT. It included timesharing support for many concurrent users at large screen displays with point-and-click interfaces. He wanted to use interactive computing in his research, but SAGE was a special purpose system that did not support interactive program development. He then came up with a scheme for creating general purpose timesharing and described it in a memorandum [5]. His approach inspired a number of groups in the MIT community to build such systems.

The first demonstration system, called CTSS, developed by Prof. Fernando Corbato and his colleagues, began operating in June 1962. McCarthy concurrently developed another timesharing system through his consultancy at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) with J.C.R. Licklider and Edward Fredkin, and it began working a few months later. CTSS led directly to the creation of Project MAC, which revolutionized computing at MIT and inspired the switch to timesharing systems in many places.

General purpose timesharing was an essential precursor to computer networking. The first general purpose computer network, created exclusively as a network of timesharing systems, was called ARPAnet and was conceived by J.C.R. Licklider, then specified by Dr. Lawrence Roberts and a group of academics who wanted to be able to collaborate by sharing resources and ideas. It was funded by the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA), constructed by BBN and became operational around 1970. Its successor, the internet, has always depended on timesharing systems at its heart, which came to be called “servers.” All of that likely would have been delayed if McCarthy had not instigated timesharing system development in the early 1960s.

In late1962 McCarthy left MIT to return to Stanford University’s mathematics department as a full professor. He started a new Artificial Intelligence Project there, which was soon funded by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later called DARPA). He also initiated the development of the first display-based timesharing system, called Thor [6], which included many of the features found in modern personal computers and subsequently was used by others in the development of computer-aided instruction systems.

McCarthy also continued to develop his chess program, and in 1965 he challenged a group at the Moscow Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP) to a match, with moves exchanged by telegraph. The competition received substantial media attention. Neither program did very well, although the Russian program won. The cryptic telegraphic exchanges were reportedly noticed by the Russian KGB security authorities, who investigated.

In 1968 McCarthy (and three others) bet Chess Master David Levy that a computer program would beat him at chess within the following 10 years. The bet gained publicity and eventually involved more than $2000 (a considerable sum for Levy, who was a graduate student in Glasgow at the time). McCarthy had to pay up, though a computer did eventually beat the world champion in 1997.

McCarthy always loved to hear about new ideas in almost any field, and generated many of them himself. He acquired many new high tech devices to see what he could do with them. He continued his work on mathematical theory of computation, and on developing programs with common sense including formalization of non-monotonic reasoning whereby people and computers draw conjectural conclusions by assuming that complications are absent from a situation [4, 9].

In 1965 the Stanford Computer Science Department spun off from Mathematics and became independent. McCarthy’s support from ARPA increased to include a million dollar computer facility, initially using a DEC PDP-6 timesharing system and later a DEC KA-10 computer. He recruited Lester Earnest as executive officer of the Project, and together they encouraged a diverse set of research projects to use the new facility when it became available in mid-1966.

McCarthy’s group made many significant contributions to a number of different computer related fields. The following paragraphs will give an indication of a few of the major projects that were done by this group.

McCarthy’s former student , and later Turing Award recipient, Raj Reddy, who did pioneering work in speech understanding, accepted a Stanford faculty appointment and scaled up that project. A music graduate student named John Chowning put together a computer music project and earned a faculty appointment. That project became a world leader in its field and eventually spun off as the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

Following up on McCarthy’s interest in robotics, Lester Earnest initiated a hand-eye project that used information from a video camera to guide a robotic arm in doing assembly tasks, a project that was taken over by Jerome Feldman, a new faculty member. Ultimately, it led to the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon under the direction of Raj Reddy when he moved there. Earnest also put together a robot vehicle with the goal of guiding it by visual information from a video camera and McCarthy took that over. However the performance of that system turned out to be severely limited by the computer processing speeds then available.

Dr. Kenneth Colby brought in his Higher Mental Functions project that developed a conversational model of a paranoid called Parry and also developed a computer interface that helped autistic children.

In 1971 the Stanford AI Project became what might be the first computer facility anywhere in the world to put display terminals on everyone’s desk. Those terminals also provided access to various video cameras in the laboratory and to live television, which encouraged football fans to work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Concurrently, a small group of graduate students led by David Poole and Phil Petit were given support to develop SUDS (Stanford University Drawing System), the first display-based computer aided design system for digital systems, which they used to design a new computer that became the DEC KL-10. SUDS produced artwork for printed circuit cards and instructions for back panel wiring machines to facilitate automatic production. It became the primary design tool of Digital Equipment Corporation and a number of other corporations for many years.

By the early 1970s McCarthy had begun to think about the potential of networks of personal computers in the home and presented a paper on “The Home Information Terminal” [7]. Given that the diversity of projects had greatly expanded [8], in 1972 the name of the facility was changed to Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL).

Vint Cerf’s development at Stanford of the TCP/IP protocols, upon which the internet was based, was supported by the same DARPA contract that supported SAIL. Over time SAIL produced many able PhDs and other graduates and became a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity that produced dozens of corporate spinoffs, both direct and indirect, including activities at Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, DE Shaw & Co., Amazon.com, Cisco Systems and Yamaha’s music synthesizer business. All of that was enabled by the diversity of SAIL projects that shared facilities and ideas.

Over time sixteen ACM Turing Awards have been given to people who had been affiliated with SAIL.

John McCarthy nominally retired at the end of 2000 but remained very active in developing and documenting new ideas. He passed away at age 84 at his Stanford home on 24 October 2011. He is survived by his first wife, Martha Coyote, and their two daughters Susan and Sarah McCarthy and his third wife, Carolyn Talcott, and their son Timothy McCarthy.

Author: Lester Earnest