The A-Z of Programming Languages: Bourne shell, or sh

An in-depth interview with Steve Bourne, creator of the Bourne shell, or sh

Steve Bourne

Steve Bourne

Where do you see shells going in general?

As I have said the shell is an interface to the Unix environment. It provides you with a way of invoking the Unix commands and managing this environment interactively or via scripts. And that is important because if you look at other shells, or more generally scripting languages, they typically provide access to, or control and manipulate, some environment. And they reflect, in the features that are available to the programmer, the characteristics of the environment they interface to. It’s certainly true the Unix shells are like that. They may have some different language choices and some different trade offs but they all provide access to the Unix environment.

So you are going to see languages popping up and shells popping up. Look at some of the developments that are going on with the Web – a number of languages have been developed that allow you to program HTML and program Web pages, such as PHP. And these are specific to that environment. I think you are going to see, as new environments are developed with new capabilities, scripting capabilities developed around them to make it easy to make them work.

How does it feel to have a programming language named after you?

People sometimes will say to me ‘oh, you’re Steve Bourne’ because they are familiar with the shell. It was used by a lot of people. But you do a lot of things in your life and sometimes you get lucky to have something named after you. I don't know who first called it the Bourne shell.

I thought it was you that named it Bourne?

No. We just called it the shell or sh. In the Unix group back in the labs I wrote a couple of other programs as well, like the debugger adb, but we didn’t call that the Bourne adb. And certainly we didn’t call it the Aho awk. And we didn’t call it Feldman make. So I didn’t call it the Bourne shell, someone else did. Perhaps it was to distinguish it from the other shells around at the time.

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