Computing royalty pays tribute to Butler Lampson

The following post is from Rob Knies, senior writer, Inside Microsoft Research.


Butler Lampson with his wife, Lois, at LampsonFest held at the New England Research & Development (NERD) in Cambridge, Mass.

Late in the afternoon on Feb. 13, the lead headline on boston.com read: “Thick blanket of snow falling.” That was just the most recent of a series of similar weather-news blasts in what has been a shivering sort of winter for residents of Boston and environs.

But at the same time over in Cambridge, Mass., a couple of hundred fortunate folks were comfortably nestled into Microsoft Research New England for a heartwarming tribute to one of the greats in computing history: Butler Lampson.

The audience sat transfixed as a succession of computing’s seminal scientists took turns at spinning stories about the early days of computing—and Lampson’s instrumental role along the way.

Among the participants were no fewer than five winners of the A.M. Turing Award, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing”:

· Alan Kay, president of the Viewpoints Research Institute and formerly of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, was the Turing winner in 2003.

· Barbara Liskov of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Liskov received the Turing in 2008.

· Ron Rivest, also of MIT CSAIL, was the Turing recipient in 2002.

· Chuck Thacker, formerly of Xerox PARC and now a technical fellow with Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, who won in 2009.

· And, of course, the guest of honor, Lampson, who won his Turing in 1992.

These legends of computing were greeted by a robust contingent representing the Microsoft Research management: Peter Lee, Jeannette Wing, Jennifer Chayes, and Christian Borgs.

With a gathering featuring accomplished scientists with a long history of foundational contributions among them, the reminiscences were both powerful and touching. Speakers shared illuminating details about the development of fundamental technologies we now take for granted. Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet and founder of 3Com, regaled the crowd with anecdotes about how computer networking came into being.

But somehow, as appropriate, the tales always ended up extolling the same theme: the many and varied contributions to computer science made by Butler Lampson.

Charles Simonyi, another veteran of Xerox PARC’s renowned innovation factory who later became chief architect and a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, brought along a couple of surprises: quotes he had been given to share by Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates.

“Butler is probably the broadest and smartest computer scientist today,” said Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. “We all just tried to keep up with him—and almost always fell behind. His contributions made much of our world possible, and I am beyond grateful.”

The comments from Gates—Microsoft founder, technology adviser and board member—were similarly admiring.

“If you could pick anyone to help you with a complex systems problem,” Gates said, “you would pick Butler. At Xerox and Microsoft, he was the key person helping with the most complex problems. I only wish I had taken more advantage of his abilities.”

It was that kind of day at Microsoft Research New England: cold and treacherous without, but warm and affectionate within.