Despite the myth that “Hello World!” is the first thing to be output by all computers, its prevalence in nearly all facets of technology is undeniable; as anyone who has used WordPress can attest. A “hello world” program is often used as a simplistic introduction to programming languages, as it’s generally quite self-explanatory, and simple enough that even those with little or no programming experience can understand its function. However, do not mistake its simplicity for a lack of utility. The program needs a functioning language compiler and run-time in order to accomplish its task. This makes it ideal for a quick and easy sanity test for new systems.
A Brief History
Early on in the history of computing, it was necessary (as it is now) to run sample programs to test the viability of newly developed systems and technologies. The key difference, however, was that in technological antiquity, the emphasis was placed on persuading a target audience that computers were the way of the future. This is evident in the first run programs used in early systems pre-1970’s. John Presper Eckert and John Mauchly first used their ENIAC for ballistics calculations, while Alan Turing used the Manchester Mark 1 to compute Mersenne primes, and John von Neumann used the EDVAC to run a custom merge-sort algorithm.
After the adoption of digital computers by the United States government and large corporations, their usefulness was self-evident. This eventually led to first-run programs being less about enticing adoption, and more about quick and easy testing of system architecture. The first known case of “Hello World” being used to serve this purpose was in Brian Kernighan’s A Tutorial Introduction to the Language B, in which it’s found as an example of using external variables.
putchar(a); putchar(b); putchar(c); putchar('!*n');
b 'o, w';
Kernighan later (1974) wrote a similar function in the budding new language “C”, which he included in an internal memo at Bell Labs called Programming in C: A Tutorial. This example, however, is more widely referred to as the “first” usage of a hello world program, and used as the basis for other language variations today.
While it may seem almost trivial, the “Hello World!” program represents a paradigm shift in society’s day-to-day operations. We as a society have accepted our technological future, and (for better or worse) embraced it with open arms. So the next time you’re shopping for a computer, consider the lengths that people like John von Neumann would’ve gone to in 1945 to prove to you that digital computers would soon replace tabulating machines.