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The Language that Led to Firmware

HP Design-Team.jpeg

Let’s be honest; when students graduate, they often have no idea where their lives will take them or the impact they’ll create. It couldn’t have been any different for Lynn Wheelwright, a BYU EC EN 1960s alumnus who assisted in the invention of firmware.

While at BYU, Lynn and three others studied the first major computer the military donated to the university, with the goal of finding out how to get it operating. Lynn created a compiler for it and made up a computer language he dubbed Wheelgol (a spin-off from Algol).

He graduated and joined the Hewlett-Packard spectrum analyzer project in the early ‘70s, an effort to create the world’s first “smart instruments.” The problem was, the HP microprocessor had several quirks, including an inability to accept any programming languages but assembly.

Lynn’s college experience with the military computer study helped him solve the problems. He created a compiler for the processor that could handle its quirks; it allowed writing control software in Wheelgol instead of assembly language.

Wheelgol was more efficient and less error prone than the previous language, and since it wasn’t hardware or software, the team invented the name “firmware” for it.

When other HP divisions caught word of Wheelgol, they used it in products beyond spectrum analyzers: signal sources, network analyzers, printers, and other product lines. Lynn and his new language became HP celebrities.

Some foreign companies purchased and attempted to replicate the machine illegally, but they couldn’t make them work because nobody outside HP knew about Wheelgol. According to Melva Wheelwright, Wheelgol is still floating around in machines at HP spin-off companies. And, according to fellow engineer Mark Marzelac, it is nearing Wheelgol’s fiftieth birthday!

It will eventually disappear—and already has, for the most part—but Lynn received five international patent awards during his career.

In the words of Melva Wheelwright, “it is fascinating to see how much our Y grads have given to the world.”