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Computing Pioneer Cited for "Fundamental Contributions"


M. Douglas McIlroy
M. Douglas McIlroy

M. Douglas McIlroy, adjunct professor of computer science, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). His citation reads, "For fundamental contributions to the development of computer operating systems and programming languages."

McIlroy enjoyed a distinguished career at Bell Laboratories, part of AT&T, now part of Lucent Technologies, retiring in 1997 to begin teaching at Dartmouth. At Bell, he was the head of the Computing Techniques Research Department from 1965 to 1986, and later was a distinguished member of the technical staff. Best known as the birthplace of the Unix operating system, his department did a variety of theoretical and applied research in programming languages, compilers, operating systems, design verification, algorithms, computational complexity, text processing, graphics, image processing, and computer security.

"One of the most rewarding aspects of my work at Bell Labs was to follow the careers of people who joined my department," says McIlroy. "Many have gained distinction in the field. I like to believe that, though the talent was theirs, our environment helped that talent bloom, and that to a considerable extent the NAE selection celebrates that environment."

McIlroy participated in the design of PL/I, a general-purpose programming language of the 1960s, and also contributed to the current C++ language. He wrote unusual compilers for PL/I, Altran (a language for algebraic manipulation), Lisp, and TMG (a tool for compiler-writers). Long interested in stream processing, he conceived Unix pipes, which allow programs to work together with no knowledge of each other, and perfected stream-based methods for processing infinite series that occur in mathematical analysis. The notion of language extension arose from his early work in macroprocessors, and software components from a 1968 NATO paper. His more recent research has addressed multilevel security for Unix, ultimately accurate bitmap graphics, and full-text indexing. Among his many accolades is the Usenix Association's lifetime achievement award, called The Flame, "for over fifty years of elegant contributions to Unix and programming,"

A parent of a 1988 Dartmouth graduate, he and his wife got to know Hanover and realized it would be a great place to pursue their joint interests in things cultural and natural. "It has fully lived up to our expectations," he says. "Like so many others at Dartmouth, we've gotten fully engaged in outdoor and conservation activities. And I've finally realized the dream of teaching that I indefinitely postponed because life at Bell Labs was so much fun." At Dartmouth McIlroy has taught courses including Advanced Operating Systems, Logic of Programming, and Data Structures.

The NAE is one of the National Academies, which also includes the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and the National Research Council (NRC). According to its Web site, the NAE's more than 2,000 peer-elected members "provide the leadership and expertise for numerous projects focused on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life."


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Last Updated: 12/17/08