Mathematica Turns 20 Today

Today is an important anniversary for me and our company.

Twenty years ago today—at noon (Pacific Time) on Thursday, June 23, 1988—Mathematica 1.0 was officially launched.

Much has changed in the world since then, particularly when it comes to computer technology.

ut I’m happy to be able to say that Mathematica still seems as modern today as it did back then when it was first released. And if you take almost any Mathematica 1.0 program from 20 years ago, it’ll run without change in the latest Mathematica 6.0 today.

From the beginning, I had planned Mathematica for the long term. I wanted to build a system that could capture the essence of computation, and apply it wherever that became possible.

I spent great effort to get the fundamentals right—and to build the system on principles that would endure.

And looking back over the past two decades it’s satisfying to see how well that has worked out.

Mathematica has grown vastly in size and scope. But everything it has become is based on the same core principles that we laid down more than 20 years ago.

If one looks at history, there has always been a certain timelessness to fundamental ideas—whether in mathematics, logic, or elsewhere.

And in developing Mathematica, my goal has always been to get to the most fundamental ideas, and to use these as the basis for building the system.

When Mathematica was first released, we emphasized its ability to do mathematics (hence its name).

But my goal with Mathematica was always much broader. I wanted to create a completely general framework—and system—for doing computation in all its forms.

Mathematics was the most exacting—and dramatic—early application. But over the years, it has been very satisfying to see how the concepts of Mathematica have been able to be applied to more and more areas.

And last year—after a decade of development—it was particularly exciting to be able to build on everything we have done to fundamentally redefine the domain of Mathematica with Mathematica 6.

The Mathematica scrapbook
Some pages from the Mathematica scrapbook

As part of helping in the creation of a 20-year Mathematica scrapbook, I recently found some to-do lists I had written for Mathematica in 1987—a year before Mathematica 1.0 was released.

Much of what is on these lists we have now done—though some we have not. But to me the most striking thing about the lists is that even after 21 years, almost everything on them is still worth doing.

It’s a reminder of just how long-term an undertaking Mathematica is. Starting from the foundations we created 20+ years ago, we have built up layer after layer of capabilities, allowing us to go steadily further.

But particularly in the past few years, it’s been wonderful to see how much this process has been accelerating. By maintaining the same core principles, we make sure that everything we do fits together. And the result is a kind of chain reaction—in which exponentially more becomes possible.

Fueled by the success of Mathematica 6, our company has recently been expanding rapidly. Our R&D pipeline is incredibly full—partly with logical extensions to directions we’ve already taken, and partly with some real surprises.

As in science and other things I do, I expect to measure progress in decades. But as we enter Mathematica’s third decade, it feels as if it’s just now really getting started.

What we’ve already built is incredibly solid.

What will come next is made possible by everything that has gone before.

It’s been a great privilege to be able to pursue the Mathematica vision these past two decades. Mathematica is today in an outstanding position, and I look forward with great excitement to what lies ahead.

Stephen Wolfram (2008), "Mathematica Turns 20 Today," Stephen Wolfram Writings.
Stephen Wolfram (2008), "Mathematica Turns 20 Today," Stephen Wolfram Writings.
Wolfram, Stephen. "Mathematica Turns 20 Today." Stephen Wolfram Writings. June 23, 2008.
Wolfram, S. (2008, June 23). Mathematica turns 20 today. Stephen Wolfram Writings.

Posted in: Historical Perspectives, Mathematica