The History Behind “Hello World”

Posted on August 11, 2020 by in WordPress | 5 comments

The History Behind “Hello World”

Hello World. The two most famous words in all of programming. Two words that every WordPress user has seen numerous times. Every coder and programmer has typed them countless times. But why is hello world even a thing? Why are they the two most ubiquitous words on the internet? Let’s take a walk down memory lane and let us tell you a story.

What is Hello World?

In general, hello world is used a few different — but typical — ways. Some of these include:

  • the filename of the first program a coder writes when learning a new language or starting a course
  • a string to test output within a script or program for the first time
  • the default first post in a WordPress site or first page on most other websites
  • placeholder text to debug a program or script
  • placeholder text in lieu of Lorem Ipsum

Typically, hello world is used as first thing that validates that a program or website is set up and running correctly, allowing the developer to move forward.

The website The Hello World Collection cites its first usage and ubiuity beginning in the 1970s:

“Hello World” is the first program one usually writes when learning a new programming language. Having first been mentioned in Brian Kernighan’s [1973] tutorial to the B programming language, it became widely known through Kernighan and Ritchie’s 1978 book that introduced “The C Programming Language”, where it read like this:

main() {
    printf("hello, world\n");
}

Since then, Hello World has been implemented in just about every programming language on the planet.

Really, that’s it. That’s the beginning. But we really need to take a look at not just where it came to be, but why it the culture latched onto it so much.

Computers Used to Be Scary

Looking back 50 years ago, computers were not something that even approached everyday life. The idea of having a conversation with one like we do with Siri and Alexa wasn’t even on the horizon. Sorting, stacking, and sliding punch cards wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

But then came Brian Kernighan and hello world. Those two words were the catalyst in a lot of ways. New programmers could see a more accessible route into computer science. In human-readable language. Not 1s, 0s, and stacks of punch cards. Now, there were human-oriented programming languages like BASIC before Kernighan’s hello world, but they hadn’t opened the floodgates of new coders quite yet.

But Then Came “C”

The programming language C really helped catalyze the growth of the industry as much as anything else. The language was (and is) powerful, and as computers shrank from the mainframe-size supercomputers to a much more manageable size for everyday use (and everyday use is contextual here, as 21st century standards would undoubtedly consider these unwieldy and obtuse). These minicomputers were still ten thousand dollars or more each, and instead of taking up a whole room or floor of a building, stood in the space of a single bookshelf.

One of the most popular was the PDP-11, which allowed for more widespread adoption due to its immense popularity. On top of that popularity, the C programming language was a near-perfect fit for the hardware, being able to take advantage of it in ways that other languages weren’t.

On top of that, C is a compiled language, meaning that you do not see changes to the code immediately. It has to run through a compiler and then be executed all at once. In order to debug and make sure compilers and features were working, hello world became a standard string to include because it compiled quickly and was uncomplicated.

All of that was kind of a perfect storm. The PDP-11 and C made computer programming much more accessible for people and businesses. All they needed was a simple and fun way to start and debug programming.

And hello world was that way.

Computers Were No Longer Scary

With the success of the PDP-11 and its successors, as well as the boom of personal computers in the 80s and 90s, hello world just kind of became a standard rite of passage almost for programmers of all kinds. Whether someone was programming on an Apple IIe or Commodore 64, regardless of the language, too, hello world was very likely to be one of the very first things to cross their screen.

There are numerous reasons for this. The first being that those people who had learned to program a decade or two before had learned with hello world from Kernighan & Ritchie’s 1978 book. The title sold millions of copies and had numerous reprints. Because teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, hello world went to a new generation. And because even the most different programming languages all function on the same base principles, hello world was an approachable and memorable way to begin any project.

And now that we have moved beyond the turn of the century, seen the creation of WordPress and hundreds of web development libraries and platforms, hello world is still the best, easiest, and most accepted way of getting a project rolling.

Hello World Will Likely Never Say Goodbye

Seeing the words hello world when a new WordPress installation finishes is a happy sign that things are going as planned. So, too, is the inclusion of a hello-world.php when you’re first beginning a journey to learn the language. Whatever the context, the two simple words have a lot more meaning than it may seem. They signify the growth of the computer from intimidating mainframes to devices we each carry with us daily. Hello world is a phrase that might have started out simply, a throwaway line in a book from decades ago, but it has become something that unites coders and programmers in every language. From 1s and 0s to BASIC, COBOL, JavaScript, English, Spanish, or French…we are all connected together because we all (most likely) start out with the same two words. And we think that’s pretty neat.

When did you learn about hello world and how do you use it in your development?

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5 Comments

  1. I’m old enough to think the inspiration for “Hello World” might have been Mike, the computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)…

  2. How nice to have this fun post, with all the stuff that’s going on. Yet one wonders, these days too, if AI is beginning to wonder whether it should be saying, “Goodbye World” instead … ; )

    • Shhh…don’t give Skynet any ideas. 😉

  3. Great blurb, I remember my first exposure to the Computing World was with PRIME and PRIMOS haha….a long time ago now!

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