Photo of John McCarthy

John McCarthy

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For his fundamental contributions to computer science and artificial intelligence, including the development of the LISP programming language; the mathematical theory of computation; the concept and development of time-sharing; the application of mathematical logic to computer programs that use commonsense knowledge and reasoning; and the naming and thus the definition of the field of artificial intelligence itself.

Mathematician John McCarthy forever changed the field of computer science with two words — artificial intelligence. The field, which studies how to create computers and software capable of intelligent behavior, was originally titled “Automata Studies.” McCarthy thought the name was too ambiguous and coined the new term in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, McCarthy pioneered computer time-sharing, which allowed several people to draw from a single computer source at one time. Since computers at that time were so scarce, McCarthy’s time-sharing idea offered access to technology to a wide variety of people.

McCarthy’s love for science and innovation began at an early age, but he wasn’t always so successful.

As a high school student, McCarthy taught himself Calculus with college textbooks and graduated two years early. Despite his early entrance into college, McCarthy was expelled during his college career for skipping too many physical education classes. He eventually returned to Caltech, graduated in 1948 and began building his legacy as an innovator in the field of computer science.

By Rachel Warren