Eugene McDonnell
Quotations and Anecdotes
compiled and edited by Roger Hui 
created:2009-05-14 23:00
updated:2016-12-07 14:55


I was born in Brooklyn in 1926, and am now 83; my wife Jeanne Farr in Akron, Ohio is now 77 (and smarter than I am). When Jeanne and I were just married we lived at 145 E. 22nd St. in Manhattan, then in Mount Kisco N.Y., and then in Media Pa. We now live in Palo Alto, CA. Our children came soon: Julia (now a licensed landscape contractor), Edith (who died at age 8), twins Peter and Luke — both gifted comic book artists; then Albert, now a fisherman from Juneau and a gifted left handed string player: bass violin, guitar, and a few others. Then Jim, now an executive at Cisco (Sandy Lerner’s company that she sold for a great bunch of money a large share of which went to a restoration of one of Jane Austen’s brothers’ homes on England). The third generation has come: Julia’s Amy, Peter’s and Shannon’s Jacob (a highly gifted user of language at age 5); Luke’s Carol — children Logan and Gabriel; Al’s wife Marin, and child Hazel Grace. We thank whatever gods there be for being so kind to us.


I went to the local grade school, P.S. 208. I was skipped twice, and in the 8th grade was put into a class of students with special abilities. Instead of regular classes we were given “contracts” which we could fulfill at our own pace.

I went to one of the three special high schools, Brooklyn Technical High School, graduating in 1943. I just today found out that Rita Whitney attended it much later.

I had a rather chequered college career: Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey; Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, while I was in the infantry; University of Kentucky, still in the infantry — I made Phi Beta Kappa there; then Harvard Graduate School — where I met my two artist friends Nicholas Solovioff and Carl Schmalz. I still have several works of Nick — and Jeanne has several Schmalz.


I enlisted in the army on January 15, 1945, when WWII was essentially over; I was 19. I volunteered to make some drafting work for an infantry lieutenant. I became a corporal by pointing out to him that I was subject to KP (kitchen police) so wouldn’t be available if I had to peel potatoes. He agreed, and made me a corporal. This had family overtones: my maternal grandfather, Albert Powers, was a corporal, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

My Army Career, e-mail to Roger Hui 2009-08-31


I had studied differential equations as the last portion of Integral Calculus while I was in the Army (1945) — and could solve differential equations with my army-issued K&E loglog duplex decitrig polyphase slide rule — and the final test was three differential equations. I held up my hand and asked Dr. Downing if we could use our slide rules, and he said yes — so I handed in my twice-checked test paper in ten minutes, while the rest of my fellow soldiers sweated for two hours.

Memories of Ken, 2006


Eugene survived army basic training with the help of a 2nd lieutenant, who advised him, “Soldier, kindly point your rifle away from your stomach”, when the officer found him attempting to unjam a loaded rifle with his foot.

Roger Hui


Eugene McDonnell entered the computer field in 1954, doing machine and assembly language programming for the Univac I, RCA 501 and 601, and IBM 650 and 7090 computers. From 1951 to 1961, Gene was a Communications Engineer at Western Union Telegraph Compay, where he designed and implemented a multi-city teleprocessing payroll program for IBM 650 and participated in the design of COMLOGNET: a U.S. Air Force computer-based messagse switching system (now AUTODIN).

Since 1961, Gene has been with IBM Corporation. He designed and implemented the command language for TSM, IBM’s first general purpose time sharing system, on the 7090. This was the first time sharing host (in 1965) for IVSYS, which was to become APL. He participated in the design of TSS, a time sharing system for IBM’s 360/67.

In 1968, Gene joined Ken Iverson’s group at IBM Research, Yorktown Heights, New York. He then moved with the group to form the Philadelphia Scientific Center in 1970. When this closed in 1974, he moved to form the APL Design group in Palo Alto, California.

Gene learned Iverson notation first from dittoed notes in 1961, then from a course given by Iverson in 1962, using the newly-published book, A Programming Language. He designed the APL notation for circular, hyperbolic, and pythagorean functions, and for the signum function. He redefined the residue and representation functions to account for the sign of the left arguments. He designed extensions of floor, ceiling, residue, and representation functions to the complex domain. He also designed and arranged the building of the APL full and fast print trains for the IBM 1403 printer.

Gene obtained a B.A. degree from the University of Kentucky in 1949, and was an Americal Council of Learned Societies First Year Graduate Fellow at Harvard University in 1950.

Gene is responsible for the IBM publications APL Language and APLSV User’s Guide, and is currently Recreational APL Editor of APL Quote Quad.

— Anon, Candidates for STAPL Offices,
APL Quote-Quad, Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 1977


In 1962 I was in Ken’s class on his notation at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY. At our second or third meeting Ken came in with a carton, which he opened, and handed one of the first copies of A Programming Language to each student. ... They had been printed in Ireland, and Wiley had had to pay penalty premiums because of all the special characters needed.

I became publisher of APL Press in 1980 when Ken and Jean moved back to Canada, and I promised Ian Sharp that I would lose at least as much money as the Iversons had. When I became aware that the book was no longer in print, I asked Wiley if they would allow APL Press to reprint it. Their answer was a dignified “No”, and their reason? “Because it’s a classic.”


I remember quite well the day I first heard the name APL. It was the summer of 1966 and I was working in the IBM Mohansic Laboratory, a small building in Yorktown Heights, NY. The project I was working on was IBM’s first effort at developing a commercial time-sharing system, one which was called TSS. The system was showing signs of becoming incomprehensible as more and more bells and whistles were added to it. As an experiment in documentation, I had hired three summer students and given them the job of transforming “development workbook” type of documentation we had for certain parts of the system into something more formal, namely Iverson notation, which the three students had learned while taking a course given by Ken Iverson at Fox Lane High School in Mount Kisco, NY. One of the students was Eric Iverson, Ken’s son.

As I walked by the office the three students shared, I could hear sounds of an argument going on. I poked my head in the door, and Eric asked me, “Isn’t it true that everyone knows the notation we’re using is called APL?” I was sorry to have to disappoint him by confessing that I had never heard it called that. Where had he got the idea it was well known? And who had decided to call it that? In fact, why did it have to be called anything? Quite a while later I heard how it was named. When the implementation effort started in June of 1966, the documentation effort started, too. I suppose when they had to write about “it”, Falkoff and Iverson realized that they would have to give “it” a name. There were probably many suggestions made at the time, but I have heard of only two. A group in SRA in Chicago which was developing instructional materials using the notation was in favor of the name “Mathlab”. This did not catch on. Another suggestion was to call it “Iverson’s Better Math” and then let people coin the appropriate acronym. This was deemed facetious.

Then one day Adin Falkoff walked into Ken’s office and wrote “A Programming Language” on the board, and underneath it the acronym “APL”. Thus it was born. It was just a week or so after this that Eric Iverson asked me his question, at a time when the name hadn’t yet found its way the thirteen miles up the Taconic Parkway from IBM Research to IBM Mohansic.

A Source Book in APL, 1981


In a time-sharing system, the key to good performance lies in the way the external storage devices are used. Here the contrast between the TSS and APL systems was most remarkable. On TSS, one could look through the glass windows of the disk devices and watch the motion of the arms. These jerked rapidly back and forth, swooping over wide areas of the disk faces, with the appearance of someone in the grip of St. Vitus’ dance. On the APL disks, one arm would be moving quite regularly, like the escapement mechanism of a clock, as it went from one track to the adjacent track, then to the next track, and so on, over fifty or so tracks in several seconds, and then retracted to the beginning and started the cycle over again. Sometimes the total excursion was more, sometimes less; it was so regular that an experienced person like Roger Moore, who was principally responsible for the APL supervisor, could tell how many users were signed on by watching it.

The Socio-Technical Beginnings of APL, 1979


Some of my children and nephews started APL on a 5100. Some started on the two-huge-suitcases version of “portable” APL. Some started on the 2741 time-sharing terminal. Luckily, none of them had to start on a 1050.

I started on the blackboard version.


I started in 1966 on an APL machine that weighed 15,000 tons, when I travelled from Hong Kong to San Francisco on the S.S. President Wilson of the American President Lines.

— Roger Hui


I’ve noticed with my own children that APL is not generally a hereditary trait, but Eric Iverson was there, to show that it can be.

APL97: A Review, 1997


In 1966 Eugene worked at IBM and hired Eric Iverson as a summer student. Twelve years later Eugene left IBM to join the language and system group at I.P. Sharp Associates, managed by Eric Iverson.

Two years thereafter Ken Iverson too left IBM to join I.P. Sharp, also to be managed by Eric Iverson. After that, Eugene didn’t feel so bad about his own reversal in the pecking order.

— Roger Hui


In APL V Fifth International APL Users’ Conference May 15-18, 1973, Toronto, is my paper The Variety of Alternative Definitions of a Simple Function, giving 17 ways to solve this problem, not limiting it to square solutions. It discusses algebraic solutions and structural solutions. The solvers, besides myself, are Phil Abrams, Larry Breed, Graham Driscoll, Adin Falkoff, Michael Halpern, Ken Iverson, Howard Smith, Lou Solheim, Roy Sykes, and S. Tsao. The solutions are not zigzag , however, but zigzag can be obtained by judicious use of reverse. It was written while the APL group was in Philadelphia, and where I was next to Ken when he stopped and calmed a runaway horse and held it until it was claimed.

message to J Forum, 2006-11-25


McDonnell in APLdom

        Santa Teresa, forgive us our sins.
        Help us remember the light that wins.
        Console us and guide us this fateful day,
        For Gene McDonnell is going away.

When lapses in logic bedevil your traces,
The father of sticks will lighten your strain
By helping you master the wide open spaces
That fill up the place where you should have a brain.
With a quick, deft mastery logical
And a manner serene, pedagogical,
He cleans out the colons and mops up the commas
And clears up the thinking and eases the pain.

        Santa Teresa, forgive us our sins.
        Help us remember the light that wins.
        Console us and guide us this fateful day,
        For Gene McDonnell is going away.

Keeper of consoles, time-sharing master,
Leader of fights for the good and the true,
Help us to face our appalling disaster:
A world without logic, a world without you.
Stay us with carets, stay us with APL,
Help us to think in the Iverson way.
You, who survived in the city of scrapple,
Help us survive in the deep, dark, South Bay.

        Santa Teresa, forgive us our sins.
        Help us remember the light that wins.
        Console us and guide us this fateful day,
        For Gene McDonnell is going away.

Sharper than serpent’s tooth, Sharper than swords,
Sharp is the pain that we feel in our hearts.
Sharp his associates, Sharp his rewards,
Dull is our prospect when he departs.
Our blessings go with thee, O friend tried and true.
May the path that you take lead to happier scenes.
But know that we all will be thinking of you,

                    The APL Crew,
                    Itty Bitty Machines

        Santa Teresa, forgive us our sins.
        Help us remember the light that wins.
        Console us and guide us this fateful day,
        For Gene the Sharpie has gone away.

— Michael Montalbano
on the occasion of Eugene McDonnell leaving IBM
to join I.P. Sharp Associates

  I was very sad to learn this morning that my old friend and colleague, Gene McDonnell, died on August 17.

Gene was actively involved in the development and promotion of APL. He was one of the first people I met when I worked at the IBM Philadelphia Scientific Center, and he later hired me to work for I.P. Sharp in Palo Alto.

Gene had a wide variety of interests. He could talk knowledgeably about mathematics, science and literature, and he had a playful sense of humor. He wrote a beautiful paper entitled “Complex floor”, which gave an entirely new way to generalize the familiar greatest integer function (or “floor”) to the complex plane. As an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on his extension, showing that you could use it to define continued fractions for complex numbers — though there are still questions unresolved about that!

Gene and I wrote a paper together entitled “Extending APL to infinity”, which suggested some ways of adapting the computer language APL to the extended real numbers. We also made a proposal to extend APL to infinite arrays, basically involving some lazy evaluation schemes. As far as I know, nobody ever implemented our ideas, although I still think it would be interesting.

Gene wrote a series of excellent columns for APL Quote-Quad (now sadly defunct) entitled “Recreational APL”. For many of us, it was the first thing we turned to when the new issue arrived. I remember in particular one beautiful column about leap years that inspired a paper I wrote, “Pierce expansions and rules for the determination of leap years”, in 1994.

Gene was intellectually active up to his last days. The most recent message I received from him was in April, where he proudly announced the publication of his new book, At Play With J, a compendium of his columns from Vector, the British APL magazine.

I’ll remember Gene for his bright blue eyes, his warm and engaging smile, and his intellectual achievements. Farewell, old friend.

— Jeffrey Shallit, Remembering Gene McDonnell, 2010


Eugene wrote about calendar calculations in one of his Recreation APL columns. Using a descendant of those functions:

   ] eem=: daynum 1926 10 18 ,: 2010 8 17 
46310 76929
   -~/ eem
   ] kei=: daynum 1920 12 17 ,: 2004 10 19
44179 74801
   -~/ kei

So Eugene and Ken Iverson, whose careers and lives are interwined at so many points, have one more connection.

— Roger Hui


The second thought determined the values of the controlling parameters, by recalling that the sine and the tangent functions were odd functions, as were the hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic tangent. This suggested that odd numbers be used to designate them. The values 1, 3, 5, and 7 seemed appropriate. (An odd function is one for which F-x is equal to -Fx . Signum is an odd function, for example; ×-5 is equal to -×5.)

Actually, 1 and 3 were chosen first, more or less by accident, for the sine and tangent, along with 2 for the cosine function, by listing the functions in the order in which they were taught me in high school, and then the observation was made about sine and tangent being odd functions. The hyperbolic functions simply fell into place afterwards.

The Story of, 1977


In 1644, 2,147,483,647 had been alleged to be prime by Father Marin Mersenne (one of the most famous allegators in all of mathematics), but it was not proven to be prime until Leonhard Euler (65 years old and completely blind) did so in 1772.

How the Roll Function Works, 1978


Observe that the caret symbol is rotated clockwise 90 degrees from box to box, going clockwise about the edges of the square, and that below the “equator”, the symbol is negated.

I won’t do any more than to say that the symbols for the functions appear to have been chosen with aptitude bordering, like Cleveland, on eerie.

The Caret and the Stick Functions, 1978


The following puzzle originated with Linda Alvord, of Scotch Plains Fanwood High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Ms. Alvord conducted APL contests for her students for several years and permitted nonstudents to enter the contests as well. An engaging thing about her contests was that she awarded an official-looking medal to the winner. I can remember how proud I was to receive my first medal. (To appreciate this story you should realize that at the time I had been using APL for a dozen years and was working in IBM’s prestigious APL design group.) Well, the day after I received the medal in the mail at home, my colleague Paul Berry was on the same commuter train to our office in Philadelphia. With great pride I showed my medal to Paul, who looked at it and said, “Oh yes, my son Michael has two of those.” Talk about put-downs!: Michael Berry (now in the Boston office of I.P. Sharp Associates) was then a high-school junior! In any event, here is the puzzle:

Pyramigram, 1980


When I met Clark Wiedmann in 1968, there were traces of humidity behind his auricular orifices.

Minnowbrook APL Workshop 1985


When Eugene and Ken Iverson went on vacation together with their wives, it’s “Genes” all around: Gene McDonnell, Jeanne McDonnell, Kenneth Eugene Iverson, and Jean Iverson.

— Joey Tuttle


One time, I discovered that “McDonnell” can be Scottish or Irish. So I e-mailed Eugene asking, “Are you Scottish or Irish?”

“I am American” was the reply.

— Roger Hui


Eugene lives a short walk from k inventor Arthur Whitney and wrote one of the early k manuals. He was also a neighbor of John L. Hennessy for a number of years. Hennesey is now the president of Stanford University.

— Roger Hui


After a satisfying Thanksgiving dinner Eugene and his family went for a walk around the neighborhood. As they passed by the Jobs residence Eugene caught a glimpse through a window of people enjoying dinner around a table. But Steve Jobs can be seen in another room, tapping at a computer. Eugene thought to himself, “Isn’t that too bad! Can’t even enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner.”

The following week came the Pixar IPO, which sold 6.9 million shares at $22/share. Steve Jobs’ 80% holding of Pixar stock was valued at $1.1 billion after the IPO.

— Roger Hui


In January 1999, Ken and Jean Iverson visited Eugene McDonnell in Palo Alto. Eugene held a dinner party in their honor on the thirteenth. In attendance were Eugene and Jeanne McDonnell, Ken and Jean Iverson, Arthur Whitney and Janet Lustgarten, Jim and Karen Brown, Paul and Sachiko Berry, Charles Brenner and Sarita Berry, Larry and Beverly Breed, Harry Saal, Ken’s nephew Derrick Iverson and his wife and new baby, David Steinbrook, Joel Kaplan, Dick Dunbar, Joey Tuttle (who flew in from Boston), and one more:

One of the events of the party was to have been a telephone call from Kyosuke Saigusa in Japan. During the party, Eugene went to make the phone call to Japan as prearranged. He came back a few minutes later, perplexed, saying that he only managed to reach Mrs. Saigusa, who said that Mr. Saigusa was not available.

At that point Saigusa-san walked in through the front door, explaining that he was not available by phone from Japan because he was there in Palo Alto!

— Joey Tuttle


[Editor’s note: Someone inquired about the desirability of working in California. DJE (Douglas J. Evans) responded by gushing about the virtues of California. Eugene chimed in with the following.]

No! Don’t believe DJE! California is full up already and there is no room left! Housing is expensive and the roads are all jammed with cars. There will undoubtedly be an 8+ Richter scale earthquake pretty soon. The natives are all hedonists who would rather play than work. The restaurants all serve yucky food like alfalfa sprouts and carrot juice. All the cities have laws against smoking anywhere except in the privacy of one’s own bedroom. The politicians are archconservative fascists. The police and the military run the whole show. There is no culture to speak of. The much-touted ocean is unswimmable because it is freezing cold. The beaches all have signs warning against the terrific undertows which drag fully-grown adults under and drown them regularly. Those who don’t drown are eaten by the sharks.

Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help you make up your mind about moving here.

— E-mail on 1987-09-18


How do you get to X from New York? You head west until you smell it, then head south until you step on it.

— Eugene McDonnell, New York born and raised


Eugene walked into my office at The Exchange Tower one afternoon, to find me on a telephone call. He wrote the following on the blackboard, smiled seraphically, and walked out. It took me a while to figure it out …

Tulsa night life: filth, gin, a slut.

— Bob Bernecky


The citations in Eugene’s APL88 paper Life: Nasty, Brutish, and Short [Ho51] were of the form [Iv87], [Kn86], [McI84], etc., a prefix of the author’s last name catenated to the year. So naturally the citation for Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was [Ho51], but the 51 referred to 1651.

— Roger Hui


Ken and I had in mind to implement A Dictionary of APL together with hooks and forks (phrasal forms). For years, Ken had struggled to find a way to write f+g as in calculus, from the “scalar operators” in Operators and Functions, through the “til” operator in Practical Uses of a Model of APL and Rationalized APL, and finally forks. Forks are defined as follows:
   (f g h) y   (f y) g (h y)
 x (f g h) y  (x f y) g (x h y)
Moreover, (f g p q r) (f g (p q r)) . Thus to write f+g as in calculus, one writes f+g in J. Ken and Eugene McDonnell worked out the details on the long plane ride back from APL88 in Sydney, Australia, with Ken coming up with the initial idea on waking up from a nap.

— Roger Hui, Remembering Ken Iverson, 2004


Most of us have to work for a living, and to that extent could be categorized as ants. I’ve always found it helpful to keep as much of the grasshopper as possible about me in the various jobs I’ve had, and love to look at the lighter side of work. For years I’ve been enchanted by the beauties of APL and now find myself even more so by J.

At Work and Play in the Fields of J, 1993


In my youth, when I was just starting in APL, on receiving an issue of the APL Quote-Quad I would inevitably and eagerly first turn to Eugene McDonnell’s “Recreational APL” column. Through these columns I learned that it was possible for technical writing to be erudite, educational, and entertaining, and through them I learned a lot of APL.

Thus it was with Eugene’s “At Play with J” articles in Vector. In topics ranging from primes to permutations to pyramids to pi, with a cast of characters that included Apter, Black, and Crelle, Jacob and Josephus, Blanda and Montana and Taylor, and Scholes, the articles offered up the “smoother pebbles” and “prettier shells” found while playing on the seashore bordering the great ocean of knowledge. And we are all beneficiaries of this play.

I am pleased that Vector is publishing the collection of At Play with J as a book. I look forward to being educated and entertained once more.

— Roger Hui, Preface to At Play with J, 2009


Now I have to apologize to readers outside of the United States of America for imposing on your good nature for so long, when what I was describing derives from the parochial form of football popular in the the USA but (I believe) not well-known outside that country. In that game there is a preeminent hero called the quarterback. He stands behind a line of seven myrmidons, the central one of which (called the center), hands the ball between his legs to the quarterback while in a crouching stance and facing away from the quarterback. The quarterback can hand the ball in turn to one of the people behind the line like himself, or can run with the ball, or he can throw it forward, aiming it in the direction of one of his running teammates. This is called a forward pass, and it is his ability to deliver forward passes so that they are caught by a teammate before hitting the ground that is measured by the rating system described so laboriously above.

Stumping the Rocket Scientist, 1997


In 1966 Eugene went into a sporting goods store in Peekskills, NY to buy a soccer ball. The salesman showed him ones that cost $10, others that cost $14, and finally the professional version for $28. (Even $10 was a lot of money in those days.) Presented with this array of choices, Eugene can not decide, explaining to the salesman that it was for his daughter Julia. The saleman said, “Oh, for girls we have some over here for $7.” Eugene immediately responded, “I’ve decided! I’ll take the $28 one.”

— Paul Berry


The Gry Puzzle is to find all the English words ending in “gry”. I first encountered this puzzle in 1984.

Everyone immediately gets “angry” and “hungry”. Eugene found a third, “gry”, from the Oxford English Dictionary. “Gry” is the smallest unit in Locke’s proposed decimal system of linear measurement. It also means to rage, to roar.

— Roger Hui


Eugene and Jeanne used to be heavy smokers. One day, they were smoking while watching television at home, and the TV showed a couple smoking. They turned to each other and said, “Do we look like that?”

Spurred into action, they got up and collected all the cigarettes in the house, then put them out along with the television to the curb to be picked up by the garbage collector. Ever since then, they had not smoked or owned a television.

— Joey Tuttle


Eugene’s Erdős number is 2:

  • Paul Erdős and Jeffrey Shallit, New bounds on the length of finite Pierce and Engel series, Séminaire de Théorie des Nombres de Bordeaux 3, 1991, pp. 43-53.
  • Eugene McDonnell and Jeffrey Shallit, Extending APL to Infinity, Proc. APL 80 International Conf., North-Holland, 1980, pp. 123-132.

He is quite proud of this fact, and wrote about it in an At Play with J column.

— Roger Hui


As of 1998-12-17, Eugene has received 12 Knuth reward checks totalling $70.07.

— Roger Hui


Eugene quipped that an item in Ken Iverson Quotations and Anecdotes is a “Kenecdote”. I guess that makes an item in this collection a “Genecdote”.

— Roger Hui


I first heard of the concept of “holding the pencil” from Ken Iverson and Eugene McDonnell. Even though Ken (and Adin Falkoff) did the design of APL, the implementers, being executors of the last step from the design to the implementation, were in control of the fine details. The battles must have been fierce; see for example this anecdote in KEI Q&A.

So if you are “holding the pencil”, you have the final say even though you may just be an amanuensis. The highest compliment I ever received from Eugene McDonnell was that I “held the pencil with a delicate touch”. (I realize that some people may not consider it a compliment.)

— Roger Hui


I wish to express my gruntlement at this latest development.