The Perl programming language turns 25

Hard to believe, but the 'Swiss Army chainsaw of scripting languages' and high-class glue holding the Internet together is 25 years young today

Let me get this out of the way up front: Perl isn't a beautiful language. It's kind of a mongrel pup with pedigreed academic roots: C, AWK, Lisp, Pascal, sed, and a bit of Smalltalk and C++ tossed in to keep the more pedestrian programmers happy. It's a down-and-dirty, incredibly rich language with no fancy pretenses. It's easy to dash out, challenging to debug and maintain. And I love it.

On Dec. 18, 1987 -- 25 years ago today -- Larry Wall published Perl 1.0 to the newsgroup comp.sources.misc. It had a shaky beginning because programmers at the time weren't quite sure what to make of it: Unix extension, AWK replacement, sed wannabe? Wall himself billed the langauge as a "replacement" for AWK and sed. A year later, he released version 2, and Perl started to take off. By 1991 -- when the quintessential "Camel" book appeared from O'Reilly -- Perl 4 was firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds and swear stacks of tens of thousands of programmers.

Rewritten from the ground up in 2000 as Perl 6, the language still managed to stick to its roots. Always quick and occasionally dirty, it ruled the roost for years, gradually losing some small amount of mind share to Python and a handful of upstarts.

Perls added new dimensions to the term "arcane." One of my favorite programming posts of all time is this response to a question on Stackoverflow about Carp error handling in Perl:

There are 2 sets of yes/no options. The function can be fatal (like die) or nonfatal (like warn). It can report just the line where the function was called, or it can report a full backtrace... The verbose option forces backtraces on. That is, it makes carp act like cluck, and croak act like confess. You can use that when you realize that you need more debugging information, but don't want to change the code to use confess.

Reigning PerlMeister Mark Keating just posted a detailed synopsis of Perl's first 25 years on the Perl Foundation site:

Perl has one of the best, if not the best, communities in the Open Source world... Perl has so many good tools and it has a culture that not only celebrates sharing and contributing but in learning... even though there are languages that can do some of the things that Perl does, some of them do some things better, others do things Perl wasn't designed for, there is no language that has been designed to do the things that Perl is very good at doing.

So here's to the high-class glue that holds the Internet together -- and to another 25 years of just making the damn thing work.

This story, "The Perl programming language turns 25," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.