Program The rantings of a lunatic Scientist

I am one with the computer… The JOSS programming language

L2Program Language

My name is Zaphod. Or at least, if my father had had his way my name would be Zaphod.

As the story goes my mother, still light headed and exhausted from child birth had to up and run down to the reception office to stop my father from having the name Zaphod (as in Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) put on my birth certificate.

Now as uncommon and strange of a name as Zaphod is my parents compromise on the name Joss is arguably just as uncommon. In fact, the only reason you have probably heard the name Joss is because a large proportion of the few people called Joss are famous (no pressure or anything). Joss is also commonly (cough: incorrectly) used as a shortening for Jocelyn.

However, what if my father in fact had another trick up his sleeve? A plan so cunning and dastardly that my mother never would have suspected his evil doing. What if my father named me after a programming language…? He had the knowledge, being a mathematician and programmer at Aldermaston, and he had shown the capability by attempting to name me after a character in a Sci-Fi TV / Radio show & Book series.

The JOSS Language

Today by random happenstance (no I was not Googling my name… who on earth does that? …) I discovered a Wikipedia page about a programming language called JOSS.

JOSS was the child of a 1950’s R&D firm called RAND which quite unimaginatively stands for Reasearch ANd Developement. RAND was funded by the US Army Air Corps which later became the US Air Force, and is still an active organisation today.

RAND developed a computer called JOHNNIAC in 1953. JOHNNIAC, which stood for John v. Neumann Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer, was soon surpassed by faster and more reliable machines. This however, allowed for other non performance critical research to be carried out on JOHNNIAC; most notably the development and usage of the JOSS programming language.

The JOHNNIAC Open Shop System, JOSS, was the first language which allowed for interactive and concurrent access to a computer. Developed between 1963 and 1964 by Cliff Shaw (inventor of the Linked-List), JOSS allowed for up to eight users to access JOHNNIAC simultaneously via separate typewriter terminals.

The language was designed as a way for mathematicians and engineers to perform small but complicated calculations quickly without having to have a great knowledge of computers or direct access to a “Computer Expert”. JOSS has two methods of interaction, direct and indirect. In direct mode the user presents command statements to the terminal (which were printed in black ink) and JOSS replies to these statements as each arrives (printed in green ink). In indirect mode the user queues up commands by preparing a program, the user then types Go. or types a statement to be run as an initializer which then runs the program.

So was I named after a programming language?

JOSS is openly referred to as JOHNNIAC’s legacy. As it just so happens my father is named John, and by being his only son I am by very definition his legacy. Coincidence? I think not!

After a little more digging trying to find out more about this language I stumbled across this paper published by the RAND Corporation in 1965, describing the results of using JOSS on JOHNNIAC over a period of approximately sixteen months. From this paper, which also gives a good overview of how to use and program in JOSS, a couple of quotes stuck out to me.

People adjust their lives to fit around JOSS… No use coming into RAND before 10:00 am when JOSS arrives, in fact noon or after 5:00 pm is a better time, JOSS is less busy. When JOSS starts typing answers, the titillating pleasure is equalled only by the ensuing anguish when JOSS breaks off into jibberish or goes away commending your code to oblivion. We can hardly live with JOSS, but we can’t live without it.

Now you can’t say that doesn’t sound like me.

JOSS lacks the problem-solving capacity to carry on a sophisticated conversation.

Actually, that sounds a little more like m… nevermind.

So was I named after a programming language? Okay probably not. I actually asked my father and while he betrayed a slightly evil smirk before he began to laugh he claims he and my mother simply chose Joss because it was uncommon.

Where to go from here?

Well I would think that’s obvious don’t you? I am a Computer Scientist name Joss and there is a programming language named JOSS which for all intents and purposes, much like Latin, is a dead language. The next step, clearly, is to find a more formal specification of JOSS or derive one if none exists and create a JOSS interpreter.

For now though I will leave you with this program which looks for a user named Joss, programmed in JOSS, by a programmer named Joss. How meta is that :)

1.1 Type "Are you Joss? (1 or 0)".
1.2 Demand n.
1.3 Do part 2 if n=1.
1.4 Do part 3.
1.5 Stop.

2.1 Type "Hello Joss!".
2.2 Stop.

3.1 Type "You aren't? Only Joss is welcome!".


  • Kevin Abel

    I had a APF PeCos machine that ran on JOSS. I liked it a lot. It was great to see the code here.