The programming language Perl ended up becoming the backbone of Yahoo and a million other websites, but when Larry Wall released Perl 1.0 for machines running the UNIX operating system December 18, 1987, he was simply sharing his personal code in case someone else found it useful. Perl was something he’d developed as a system administrator to solve a problem at work.
Wall was working on a “secret NSA project,” according to a 1998 Salon interview, and needed reports about the information being synchronized between the two sites. He developed Perl, which some say stands for “Practical Extraction and Report Language,” though Wall has said it’s a riff on “Pearl” from the Parable of the Pearl in the Gospel of Matthew. (A programming language called Pearl already existed, so the “a” was dropped).
Wall wanted other programmers to “bend” and tinker with his source code. The versatile code became known as the “duct tape of the internet” and was likened to a “Swiss army chainsaw.”
Wall’s open source beginnings
Perl wasn’t Wall’s first foray into open source code. Previously, he had written the program “rn” for reading Usenet newsgroups. His unique approach to code — combining the utilitarian nature of a sysadmin with his background in linguistics — resulted in a language beloved for its “humanistic” approach.
Wall told Salon, “Perl does a lot of hand-holding and gives very good feedback on what it thinks is wrong with your program, so there is a very rapid turnaround if you are trying to develop something quickly.”
For his contributions to open source code, Wall received the 1996 Dr. Dobb’s Excellence in Programming Award and the 1998 Free Software Foundation’s Award for the Advancement of Free Software.
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