Before Cleve Moler invented MATLAB — a coding platform used extensively in the engineering and scientific world — he was a graduate student at Stanford, where a brand-new computer science department invented the industry and blew off steam by tinkering with the world’s first video game.
Moler and his friends were part of the pioneers who led society into the computing age. MATLAB is now used at universities and in engineering and scientific companies around the world, but the platform’s birth is a humble slice of the Silicon Valley story. Moler came to Texas A&M to discuss MATLAB’s story Monday at the Mitchell Physics building.
Moler started back in his college days at California Institute of Technology in the late 1950s, when there were very few computers in the world.
“The computer at Caltech was one of a couple dozen computers in southern California at the time,” Moler said.
Upon graduation, Moler went to Stanford for graduate school and studied under George Forsythe, the founder of Stanford’s computer science program, and became one of Stanford’s first computer science students.
“This is when the world’s first video game, “Space War,” was made where you could manipulate the orientation of rocket and fire missiles at the other rockets,” Moler said. “Somebody wrote a sign on the machine that said ‘No Space War between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.’”
Moler recounted that MIT and Stanford tried to hold a “Space War” competition over phone lines, but the connection was too slow.
Later on, Moler and some of his colleagues created Linpack, a numerical library used to solve linear algebra problems.
“We sent the code to a couple dozen laboratories and universities and asked them to run them and time them,” Moler said. “The fastest machine in the world at the time was at NCAR, National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and it was doing 14 megaflops.”
This process still forms the basis for deciding the fastest computing machine in the world. Molar noted that the fastest machine in the world today runs nine orders of magnitude faster than the original.
Moler wrote MATLAB originally as a side project. When he showed the project to some of his numerical analysis students at Stanford in 1979, he said the students were not particularly impressed.
However, one student would eventually show the program to a man named Jack Little.
“Little immediately threw away all his other programs and started using MATLAB, and three years later he came to me and said he wanted to commercialize MATLAB,” Moler said. “Little quit his job, went up to the hills behind Stanford and founded MathWorks in 1984.”
Little made several modifications to the program and it went commercial in December of 1984.
“The company doubled in size for the first seven years of its existence,” Moler said. “We now have about 3,500 people worldwide.”
MATLAB is used in a wide variety of applications today, Moler said.
“We have a bunch of types of businesses we are involved in now,” Moler said.
These range from biology in RNA sequencing, to Wall Street finance calculations, medical devices like hearing aids, electronics and circuit design and control systems for things like quadcopters, to computing systems in cars like the Chevrolet Volt.
As broad as these applications are, the program is not too complex for new users.
“MATLAB was easy and very user friendly when I started using it years ago,” said John Richardson, a petroleum engineering graduate student. “It was the first language I programmed in and it was simple to learn on.”