The Story of Mel

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The Story of Mel is an archetypical piece of computer programming folklore. Its subject, Melvin Kaye,[1] is an exemplary "Real Programmer" whose subtle techniques fascinate his colleagues.


Ed Nather's The Story of Mel details the extraordinary programming prowess of a former colleague of his, "Mel", at Royal McBee Computer Corporation.[2][3] Although originally written in prose, Nather's story was modified by someone into a "free verse" form which has become widespread.[4][5]

Little is known about Mel Kaye, beyond the fact that he was credited with doing the "bulk of the programming" on the 1959 ACT-1 compiler for the Royal McBee LGP-30 computer.[6][7] In Nather's story, Kaye is portrayed as being prone to avoiding optimizing assemblers in favor of crafting code to take advantage of hardware quirks, for example taking advantage of the rotation of the LGP-30's drum memory to avoid writing delay loops into the code.

The story, as written by Nather, involved Kaye's work on rewriting a blackjack program from the LGP-30 to a newer Royal McBee system, the RPC-4000; company sales executives had requested to modify the program so that they could flip a front panel switch and cause the program to lose (and the user to win). Kaye reluctantly acceded to the request, but to his own delight, he got the test wrong, and the switch would instead cause the program to win every time (and the user to lose).

Subsequent to Kaye's departure, Nather was asked to fix the bug. While examining the code, he was puzzled to discover that it contained what appeared to be an infinite loop, yet control did not remain inside the loop. Eventually he realized that Kaye was using self-modifying code to process elements of an array, and had coded the loop in such a way as to take advantage of an Integer overflow. Adding 1 to the address field of an instruction that referred to address x normally just changed the address to x+1. But when x was already the highest possible address, not only did the address wrap around to 0, but a 1 was carried into the bits from which the opcode would be read—in this case changing the opcode to "jump to" so that the full instruction became "jump to address 0". This impressed Nather so much that, out of respect, he gave up the task and reported that he could not find the bug.

The early computers of IAS machine design had no index register. Using self-modifying code was necessary for array operations. The LGP-30 instruction  y 2000  did "replace the contents of the address portion of the word in memory location 2000 with the contents of the address portion of the word in the accumulator" to ease writing self-modifying code.[8]


The essay was originally published in the Usenet news group "net.followup" on May 21, 1983, by utastro!nather (the UUCP email address of Ed Nather at the time).[2][3]

The Royal McBee computers were developed and manufactured by Librascope, and the documentation written for the blackjack program was written by Mel Kaye of Librascope Inc. The August 1956 edition of The Librazette, the Librascope newsletter, contains a story about training on the LGP-30, and mentions that some Librascope application engineers were transferred to the Royal McBee payroll. Among the engineers named is Mel Kaye.[1]

There is a photograph on the front page of that issue showing that first class of neophyte LGP-30 programmers and the instructors, including Mel Kaye.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Librascope Memories" (PDF). The Librazette. Librascope Inc.
  2. ^ a b Raymond, Eric S., ed. (1992-07-01). "The Jargon File, Version 2.9.10, 01 Jul 1992 (jargon2910.ascii.gz)" (GZ). line 20505. Archived from the original on 2017-03-09. Retrieved 2014-07-01.
  3. ^ a b Matt Crawford (November 20, 1984). "The realest programmer of all". Newsgroupnet.jokes. Usenet: 531@oddjob.UChicago.UUCP. Retrieved December 22, 2019.
  4. ^ The Story of Mel free verse version
  5. ^ "The Story of Mel, A Real Programmer, Annotated".
  6. ^ Bill von Hagen (1 Jun 1994). "New Light on the Legend of Mel". Newsgroupalt.folklore.computers. Usenet: Retrieved December 22, 2019.
  7. ^ "In particular, Mel Kaye of Royal McBee...", FOLDOC,
  8. ^ Royal McBee Corporation (April 1957). ROYAL PRECISION Electronic Computer LGP - 30 PROGRAMMING MANUAL. Port Chester, New York: Royal McBee Corporation. Retrieved 2020-03-17.
  9. ^ "Mel Kaye in the first LGP-30 training class". the Librazette. Librascope Inc.

Further reading[edit]