Ergonomics of the Symbolics Lisp Machine


Ergonomics of the Symbolics Lisp Machine

An idiosyncratic analysis of what made the Lisp Machine legendary. People swear by the keyboards, and it’s no wonder why: they cost more than most computers do today.

I have never been near a Lisp Machine that I know of. I wonder if they really do live up to their reputation. Have you used a Lisp Machine? I would love to hear from people who have.


I used Symbolics and TI Explorers pretty much every day for several years in the mid-1980s. Yes, they live up to their reputation. :smile: At the same time I was regularly using a Vax, a PC, a Tektronix Smalltalk workstation, and later a color Mac II. The Tek box was the better bang/buck but the Lisp Machines were the best regardless of cost.


Interesting. Is there any way to get (back) there from here? Start over?

Years ago I read that the Symbolics Lisp Machine OS was the single greatest piece of software ever written by a handful of people. It always makes me think that one day a small group will be able to build a new OS again that works with modern hardware and current file formats, etc. Well, one can dream! :slight_smile:


One thing to bear in mind is how few people ever used a Lisp Machine, so for all intents and purposes, there is no “there” to get back to when it comes to a widespread audience. :smile:

Symbolics in particular was a tour de force though. If you take all the nice things you like about programming in a Lisp today, Symbolics almost certainly had an equivalent, and it was all coherently integrated and amp’d up to 11. e.g. if you like Datomic, Symbolics had Statice, an OODB fully integrated with CLOS with a Datalog-based query language.

The compromises today are that all this stuff is available multi-language, multi-platform, mostly open source, more powerful and cheaper hardware/cloud. But not quite as coherent, not quite as capable. A sustained source of funding would be needed to overcome those compromises, but it’s not clear to me what the incentives would be other than a nerdy altruism.