Celebrating Mathematica’s First Quarter Century
June 23, 2013 — Stephen Wolfram
Today it’s exactly a quarter of a century since we launched Mathematica 1.0 on June 23, 1988. Much has come and gone in the world of computing since that time. But I’m pleased to say that through all of it Mathematica has just kept getting stronger and stronger.
A quarter century ago I worked very hard to lay the best possible foundations for Mathematica—and to define principles and structures on which I thought Mathematica could be grown far into the future. And looking back now I have to say that all that effort paid off far better than I could ever have imagined.
I have always insisted that Mathematica be a system without compromises: a system where everything is designed and built right. Often there have been immense technical challenges in doing this. And sometimes it’s taken years. But the result has been the creation of an ever more impressive and unique structure, able to grow and advance without bound.
Twenty-five years is a long time in the history of technology. And it’s extremely rare for a technology project to maintain a clear and consistent direction for that long. No doubt part of what’s made it possible for Mathematica is that I’ve personally been able to continue to provide leadership over all those years. But what’s also been critical is that we’ve been able to build Wolfram Research into a long-term company that can focus on long-term goals.
One might have thought that any technology that existed 25 years ago would by now look old and clunky. But not Mathematica. The interface to Mathematica 1.0 had to deal with dial-up connections and one-megabyte memory limitations. But from the very beginning I tried hard to make sure that the underlying language—what we now call “the Wolfram Language”—was pure and timeless. And while the Wolfram Language has grown and broadened immeasurably over the last quarter century, the core of it is still what was in Mathematica 1.0—and it looks as fresh and modern as ever.
My goal in building Mathematica was an ambitious one: to create once and for all a single unified computational system that could eventually handle all forms of algorithmic work. Mathematics was an early target area (hence the name “Mathematica”). But the real goal—and the core design of the system—was much broader. And over the past 25 years the system has grown at an accelerating rate to encompass more and more.
Throughout everything we’ve followed a principle that I defined right at the beginning: that whatever is added, everything across the whole system must always fit together in a coherent way. Often it’s taken great effort to achieve this. But the payoff has been spectacular. Not only has it kept an ever-larger system easy to learn and use; it’s also made possible a kind of combinatorial growth in the power of the whole system—with each new part routinely able to combine capabilities from every other part.
It’s been exciting to watch the growth of Mathematica over the past 25 years. To see so many new areas covered in each successive version. And to see what is now an immense algorithmic edifice emerge: a giant interconnected web of algorithms and capabilities quite unlike anything even imagined before.
Some of the algorithms in Mathematica are ones that were already known. But increasingly they’re ones we’ve invented. Sometimes by making use of sophisticated functionality from other parts of Mathematica. And sometimes by using methods like automated algorithm discovery from A New Kind of Science. But increasingly what we need are not just algorithms, but meta-algorithms—that automatically select between different algorithms based on a host of criteria from efficiency to aesthetics.
Automation has always been a guiding principle of Mathematica. Users define what they want to achieve. Then the idea is that it’s up to Mathematica to figure out—as automatically as possible—how best to achieve it. At first it wasn’t clear how far automation could go. But with every new version of Mathematica, we’ve found ways to automate more and more. In effect making Mathematica a higher and higher level system.
Back when Mathematica was young there was sometimes a tension: should one use Mathematica because it’s easy and general, or should one use some special-purpose system that’s specifically optimized for a particular kind of work? Well, over the past decade or so, even when it comes to efficiency, special-purpose systems have lost their edge. Because with all its capabilities Mathematica can just implement vastly better algorithms.
Looking at the development of Mathematica over the past 25 years, I see a mixture of inexorable progress, and surprises. Often pieces of ever more sophisticated functionality simply have to be built layer-by-layer over the course of many years. And sometimes it takes advances in hardware and interfaces—or in peoples’ familiarity with some concept or another—to make progress possible. But then there are surprises. Where given what exists, one can suddenly see some new possibility that one never imagined before.
Mathematica will never be truly finished. There will always be more to add to it, more to automate, more intellectual structures to discover. Often over the years I’ll be thinking about some area or another and wonder whether it’ll ever be possible to integrate it into Mathematica. But the remarkable experience that I’ve had over and over again is that eventually the answer will turn out to be yes. Sometimes it’ll require significant conceptual breakthroughs. But usually the result is that by building on the principles and foundations of Mathematica one can create something uniquely clear and powerful—that often for the first time “consumerizes” a particular area to the point where it can routinely be used.
As a software engineering achievement, Mathematica can undoubtedly be considered one of the great codebases of our time. But more than that, I think it stands as a major intellectual achievement: a unique representation and clarification of the scope and concept of computation.
Mathematica long outgrew its math-related name. And today in fact it stands at a turning point. Its content and capabilities make it relevant to a huge range of applications. And now the ambient technology of our times—cloud, mobile, and more—will finally allow it to be conveniently deployed in a quite ubiquitous way. Already Mathematica is at the core of CDF, Wolfram|Alpha and everything that is done with them. But there is vastly more to come.
It has been wonderful to see over the past 25 years so many ways that Mathematica has contributed to invention, discovery and education in the world. But I suspect that all that has happened so far will pale in comparison to what the future holds. We have spent more than a quarter of a century building up the unique structure that is Mathematica today. And in some ways it has taken the better part of 25 years to realize just how strong and important what we have is—and to get to the point where it can begin to realize its full potential.
For me and our team Mathematica is much more than a product. It is a mission. To create the means to bring the power of computation and computational knowledge to as much of our world as possible. And to create something that will stand as a broad and enduring contribution to civilization.
I am proud of what we have been able to achieve with Mathematica in the last 25 years. And it is a source of great encouragement to read remarks from people whose lives Mathematica has touched. But as I look to the future, I realize that in many ways we are just getting started. And humbling though it is after spending nearly half my life so far devoted to Mathematica, it is inevitable that in time the quarter century just passed will seem like just a small part of the development of Mathematica.
But today I am pleased to celebrate the first 25 years of Mathematica. And, yes, in recognition of the many seemingly impossible challenges that we have overcome in the development of Mathematica, the object at the top is what might seem like an impossible geometrical object: a 25-pointed “spikey”.
It’s been a great first 25 years for Mathematica. It’s been a pleasure and privilege to be part of it. And I look forward with great anticipation to the years to come.