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Stanford Spinners



Edited by Lester Earnest <les at>


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Started by a successful businessman turned politician, for the last 120+ years Stanford University has trained hundreds of thousands of academics, professionals, politicians and others who have settled around the world and significantly influenced world history.

     During 1963-89, five related research groups at Stanford trained many hundreds of computer scientists, engineers, musicians and others who have also settled around the world but have especially influenced the development of what came to be called Silicon Valley. We call them spinners because they produced a lot of spinoff organizations, products and services.

Most participants seemed to have a lot of fun along the way. This site provides links to research group sites showing videos and documents that describe much of what they have accomplished so far.

     Given that a number of people moved from one group to another over time, more than one group may brag about a given individual's later accomplishments. The three letter identifiers shown below in brackets after people's names came into use on the SAIL computer system in 1966 and are still used by many people today.


Research Groups

An Artificial Intelligence Project was initiated in 1963 by Prof. John McCarthy [JMC] with funding from the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In 1965 a new Computer Science Department spun off from the Mathematics Department and Edward Feigenbaum [EAF], whose ARPA-funded AI work had started in 1963 at UC Berkeley, joined McCarthy in a quest for funds from ARPA for “big AI” at Stanford. They wrote a joint proposal to ARPA in 1965, resulting in much greater funding. Lester Earnest [LES] joined as Executive Officer and designed a new computer research facility in the foothills above the Stanford Campus then got it built.


With the concurrence of others, Earnest later renamed this facility the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and continued to manage it for 13 years with a population of 100+ working on a number of projects, staffed with some professional researchers but mostly PhD candidates, nearly all strongly self-motivated. SAIL produced many early advances in AI including speech understanding, robotics, human interactions with computers, theorem proving, perception of planetary changes from space photography, development of public key cryptography and, along the way, lots of music synthesis and other audio technologies. However, SAIL was shut down in 1980 after a move to the newly renovated Margaret Jacks Hall in the Outer Quad of the main campus.

     Prof. Sebastian Thrun revived SAIL in 2003 in Gates Hall and developed one of the first successful autonomous road vehicles, which he and some of his colleagues then took to Google for further development. Gates Hall was named for a major donor, multi-billionaire Bill Gates, who had been introduced to computer programming in 1968 by three people from SAIL using SAIL software.

     Over the years, sixteen former members of SAIL have received ACM Turing Awards, widely viewed as the Nobel Prize of computer science, which is likely the most of any research group in the world. Its former members also founded dozens of successful spinoff corporations.


The Heuristic Programming Project (HPP), was first called simply “the Chemistry Project,” then the “Heuristic DENDRAL Project”, then shortened to “the DENDRAL Project.” Ed DENDRAL started small as a collaboration with Genetics Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg [JL]. EAF was focused on an important AI problem of modeling the processes of induction that people used in forming hypotheses and framing scientific theories from data, information processes that could be used by computers (AI programs). JL wanted to explore how computers could be used to assist scientists with laboratory work, and with scientific thinking and discovery (hence, JL’s interest in AI). JL and EAF, joined by Bruce Buchanan [BGB] and Carl Djerassi (head of the Stanford Mass Spectrometry Laboratory and “father of the birth control pill”), built the first program that exhibited human-level expertise on a complex real-world scientific problem: the interpretation of the mass spectra of organic molecules. The methods used became the foundation for the AI science and engineering of knowledge-based systems (KBS), a theme that was regarded as a paradigm shift in AI and was to dominate AI work worldwide for 10-15 years. The AI programs produced came to be known as Expert Systems (ES). HPP scientists, specifically BGB and Edward Shortliffe (an MD-Ph.D. student) pioneered MYCIN, perhaps the most famous expert system. The boundaries of KBS and ES were pushed in applications to engineering, geology, X-Ray Crystallography, diagnostic and therapeutic Medicine, and Molecular Genetics (MOLGEN), among many others. All of the work mentioned produced spinoff companies, among the earliest of AI companies. The AI work of the HPP was supported by a superb and highly innovative computer-and-networking group called SUMEX, under the leadership of Tom Rindfleisch [TR]. As funded by NIH, it changed its name to SUMEX-AIM, where the AIM stood for AI in Medicine. SUMEX-AIM supported a national community of scientists working in AI applied to medical problems (using the networks of the day, including the ARPAnet.) The device we call the “network router” was invented by a SUMEX engineer, as was the IMAP mail protocol.

The two groups (HPP and SUMEX-AIM) became three with the growth of Medical Informatics (MI) under Shortliffe. A “laboratory” organization to coordinate their activities was formed: the Knowledge Systems Laboratory (KSL). Rindfleisch became its first Director. In the 1990s, Richard Fikes became its Director. Completing a circle of almost 40 years, KSL merged with the reborn SAIL in the early 2000s.

Most important of all is to recognize that the work mentioned above was created, articulated, and supported by a large number of “the best and the brightest” of Stanford researchers and graduate students. Four of those graduate students (in addition to BGB and EAF) became Presidents of the AAAI. Three of them were elected to the National Academy (in addition to EAF and BGB.) And EAF won the ACM Turing Award.


The Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) was initiated within SAIL in 1964 by graduate student John Chowning [JC] under the initial name the Music Project. Chowning had read about Max Mathews’ program for sound synthesis, developed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and wanted to implement it at Stanford. He was tutored and shepherded in this initial contact with computing by David W. Poole [DWP] who rewrote Max Mathews’ Music IV synthesis program from BEFAP to PDP-10 assembly language. Renamed MUSIC 10 in 1966, it was developed over a period of ten years and became the benchmark of the era as indicated by its choice by Pierre Boulez to be installed at IRCAM in Paris, which opened in 1977. Poole later became, with Phil Petit [PMP], a critical member of the team that designed the Foonly computers, one of which became CCRMA’s primary computer and controller for the Samson Box through the 1980s, with Tovar [TVR] as systems manager.

After getting a faculty appointment in the Music Department, then losing it, Chowning returned in 1974 and with John Grey [JMG], James (Andy) Moorer [JAM], Loren Rush [MUZ], Leland Smith [LCS] and Patte Wood [PAT] (admin), continued the project under the CCRMA title. In 1979 CCRMA was abandoned in the disintegrating D.C. Power Building when the rest of SAIL moved to Margaret Jacks Hall in the Outer Quad. Meanwhile Chowning’s discovery/invention in 1967 of FM Synthesis led to a an agreement in 1974 with Yamaha resulting in a family of synthesis engines that became the largest selling in the history of electronic instruments—and brought in a lot of revenue. CCRMA was relocated on campus in the Knoll in 1986.

Directed by Chris Chafe [CC] since 1996, CCRMA has thrived. Its faculty/staff has grown to include music composition and theory, audio engineering, electrical engineering, computer science and neuroscience— a rich interdisciplinary environment modeled after SAIL that was so important to the rapid development of CCRMA in its early formative years.


Network Protocol Development Project (NPDP). After Vinton Cerf [CRF] graduated from Stanford, worked at IBM for two years and then earned a PhD at UCLA, while helping create the ARPAnet host protocols, he joined the Stanford faculty in October 1972 with a joint appointment in CS and EE. There he started work on a project to develop new protocols that would enable the interconnection of an arbitrary number of packet switched computer networks, which was funded under an ARPA contract shared with SAIL and HPP.

The Internetting project was started by Robert Kahn, who had been a key architect of the ARPAnet while working at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN). He had just joined ARPA in the Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO), which he later led. They initially focused on the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that would reliably move streams of data from one site to another. They later split out Internet Protocol (IP) to serve as the base protocol of the Internet, supporting TCP and the real-time User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Kahn also launched a ground mobile packet radio implementation project and continued development of a packet satellite network linking the US East Coast with Western Europe. All three networks were combined into the Internet when all hosts on the ARPAnet were converted to run TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. That date marks the operational birth of Internet.


The TeX/METAFONT Project (TeX+MF) was initiated by Prof. Donald Knuth [DEK] in 1977 to improve the quality of publications, especially in science. His computer work was entirely done on the SAIL computer, and ran there until 1989. Dr. Arthur Samuel [ALS] and research assistants Luis Trabb Pardo [LTP] and David Fuchs [DRF] were among the principal participants, along with superstudents such as Michael Plass [MFP] and Frank Liang [FML] and supersecretary Phyllis Winkler [PHY]. This project was one of the first and foremost examples of successful public domain software; the resulting systems are now used to prepare more than 95% of all mathematical publications worldwide. The TeX User Group has active members in dozens of countries using dozens of languages.


Sailaway Email List History.

2009.11.22 Stanford Spinners Seminar and Reunion Dinner, an event for both early and modern SAIL people. The Sailaway email list was created in 2009 by Lester Earnest in preparation for this reunion of participants in John McCarthy’s Artificial Intelligence Project (AIP), started in 1962, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), started by Lester Earnest in 1966 but shut down in 1980. The initial email list included only people who had been directly involved in SAIL whose emails were still known to Earnest, about 320 people  However the reunion also included people from the modern SAIL that was restarted in 2004 by Sebastian Thrun.

Reunion Dinner participants

Walkabout on 2009.11.21

Regrets from some who can't come

Medalists who were given “John McCarthy Awards for Excellence in Research and Research Environments”

SAIL Sagas (anecdotes)

Visible legacies for Y3K proposes a scheme for the sustainable archiving of SAIL

Optimism as Artificial Intelligence Pioneers Reunite by John Markoff, New York Times, 2009.12.08.


2013.03.25 Celebration of John McCarthy's accomplishments following his passing.


2015.04.28 Spinners Dinner, organized by Les Earnest at Chef Chu’s Restaurant

Ed Feigenbaum's kindly “Tribute to Les Earnest and his contribution to SAIL

Ed Fredkin's talk about “How John McCarthy came to Stanford

David Luckham's talk about the theft of a photo from his office 43 years ago

Talk by Pentti Kanerva about “What happened to the PDP-1 in Pine Hall after SAIL moved to DC Power Lab

SpinoffsOrganizations founded by Stanford Spinners and spinoffs from those (with a lot more work to be done on this list)

Turing Awards received by Spinners

Spinoff Products and Services (with a lot more to be done here too)

Spinning Truth: Historical accounts by Spinners (somewhat complete but more contributions will be welcome)

Spinners who have spun off sadly


Sailaway Experiments

During 2016, I experimented with making the Sailaway Email List unmoderated, which turned out to be a disaster as the list was flooded with email and, while on a Baltic Sea cruise, I was unable to regain control via satellite Internet.

     However I eventually shut it down upon returning home and later started a new Sailaway2 email list that was again moderated but was open to subscription by anyone using Mailman on However, instead of simply forwarding posted messages, that system senselessly put each message in an attachment to an email.

     I subsequently shut down Sailaway2 and set up Sailaway3 on the Stanford Sailaway Mailman, which will continue as a moderated forum with limited chit-chat.


Future Sailaway Developments

I plan to compile an archive of Sailaway postings, year by year, but omitting the deluge that appeared during the unmoderated period in 2016. I also plan to set up a loosely moderated blog for discussions of historical and modern topics for those who wish to do that.