Citation for Dr. Kenneth Iverson

Dr. Kenneth Iverson began his studies in Mathematics as an undergraduate student at Queen’s University and went on to study at Harvard where he earned an MA and Ph.D. It was while doing his graduate work that he became interested in computing and helped to establish the first computer applications program of study at Harvard University. In 1954, when relatively senior members of our current faculty were in elementary school, Dr. Iverson delivered a lecture on Graduate Instruction and Research to Harvard’s “First Conference on Training Personnel for the Computing Machine Field.” The lecture laid out a design for the first graduate course in computing science given at Harvard—a course Dr. Iverson went on to teach.

At that time he also developed a special mathematical notation (now known as the Iverson notation) to assist in writing about computer applications. The notation has been described by one of our faculty colleagues as being “a transparent and illuminating notation for mathematical concepts”.

In the early 1960’s, having moved to IBM, Dr. Iverson made an historic contribution to computer science by inventing APL, a programming language. APL was revolutionary in at least two respects: first, it was designed to interact with programmers and users through a typewriter terminal, rather than running in batch mode from punched cards or tape. It inspired computer scientists with the possibilities of interactive computing, well before that form of computing was at all common. Second, APL took programming to a higher level of abstraction than previous languages, which abstraction along with its concise notation, allowed enormous increases in programming productivity. Iverson emphasized that a programming language should be designed primarily as tool for expressing human thought, and only secondarily as a tool for instructing a computer. For his work, he was in 1971 made an IBM Fellow, the highest non-managerial position within the corporation. In 1979, he was awarded the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery—the most prestigious award in computer science.

Dr. Iverson has always placed a great value on sharing knowledge through teaching. He has written several books on teaching mathematics, and APL was originally conceived as a teaching tool. He has continued to be active in his field, and with his son Eric and colleague Roger Hui, he has developed a new language, called “J”. This new language is now gaining attention worldwide.

Nominations for Dr. Iverson to be honoured by York University came not only from computer scientists and mathematicians, but also from psychologists and philosophers. One of the latter, noted that if Edna St. Vincent Millay was right in saying that “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare,” it was the case that Kenneth Iverson had “caught glimpses and conveyed them lucidly to the rest of us.”

It is not only because York University was one of the first institutions outside IBM to make use of APL that we are particularly proud to honour Kenneth Iverson today. A creative inventor, pedagogical pioneer and breaker of disciplinary boundaries, Dr. Iverson exemplifies our highest ambitions for our own faculty and students. Therefore Mr. Chancellor, I am pleased to request that you confer on Dr. Kenneth Iverson the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


Kenneth Iverson received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from York University on June 11, 1998. The citation was read by Professor B. Drummond, the University Orator.