MathSpad : Historical Facts

Development of the MathSpad system was initiated in 1987 by Roland Backhouse with support from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and, later, the NWO (the Dutch organisation for scientific research). In intensive discussions with Paul Chisholm a design was formulated of a system for on-screen algebraic calculations. This prototype system, implemented by Paul with technical support from Harm Paas, first became available for use in 1990. The principal design element was a flexible system for on-the-fly definition of mathematical notations (the ``stencils'' of the current system).

During 1990 much was learnt from experimenting with Paul's prototype implementation. ``Guinea pigs'' at that time who provided much useful feedback were Grant Malcolm and Ed Voermans. During a period of six months several alterations were made to the ergonomics of the system as a result of this feedback. In the summer of 1990 Roland Backhouse moved to Eindhoven University of Technology and Paul Chisholm left the university world for a post in industry in Australia. The system had settled into a stable state and it was decided to freeze the development for a while until full benefit had been gained from its active use. Ed Voermans was responsible for correcting the few bugs that emerged after Paul's departure. Being a prototype, the system had at that time no name. A paper written by Paul Chisholm outlining the system was presented in Paul's absence by Roland Backhouse at the 3rd International Workshop on Software Engineering and its Applications, Toulouse, France, 3--7 December 1990.

Work on MathSpad itself began in March 1992. Richard Verhoeven and Olaf Weber took on the task of a complete reimplementation as their final year project (in Dutch ``afstudeerproject''). Priorities were to increase the (on-screen) readability of documents by the use of proportional spacing, the integration of plain text with mathematical calculations, and a better, more flexible design of stencils. The transformation system that formed a major part of the existing prototype was scrapped because, although the prototype system had been intensively used on several projects, this element had not --- possibly due to bad design but more likely due to the inherent instability of the mathematical frameworks being investigated by those using the system.

Richard and Olaf graduated in December 1992 and were then employed for a period of three months to refine their implementation. After this period Olaf left and has since joined a similar project at the CWI in Amsterdam. Richard Verhoeven is currently employed at Eindhoven University of Technology and is responsible for the further development of MathSpad. Ed Voermans suggested the name. The MathSpad logo was designed by Q Design from an original idea by Kevin Backhouse; the design was subsequently implemented in METAFONT by Kevin.

During 1993, MathSpad was used intensively by members of the Mathematics of Program Construction group at Eindhoven University of Technology and, once again, the feedback obtained was extremely valuable in improving the system's design. Version 0.31 of the system was made available via ftp in December, 1993.

Further use of the system after this initial release led to a major revision in the way files are stored, and to the inclusion of extensive help facilities. These revisions were designed principally to accommodate co-authorship at a distance.

The final major revisions included converting the whole system to Unicode, the inclusion of colours in templates and pop-up menus, and the addition of an interpreted language allowing easy definition of menus, keyboards and new functions. For details and the software itself see here.

The project terminated in June 2000, when Richard Verhoeven successfully defended his PhD thesis on the topic, but we continue to welcome criticism and suggestions on the design.

We are extremely grateful to all those who have been willing to act as guinea pigs during periods when MathSpad was both unstable and sometimes unreliable --- Eerke Boiten, Henk Doornbos, Maarten Fokkinga, Netty van Gasteren, Rik van Geldrop, Paul Hoogendijk, Ed Knapen, Ed Voermans, Harold Weffers and Jaap van der Woude. Hilary Backhouse and Maarten Fokkinga provided us with many detailed comments on, criticisms of, and corrections to, the first draft of this manual. Lambert Meertens has also offered sage and much appreciated advice from the very earliest days of the project.

Roland Backhouse.