Andrew P. Black
black at cse.ogi.edu
Wed Feb 26 01:47:42 UTC 2003
This is a call for language historians!
In teaching OOP, I often ask students to read and discuss Dan
Ingall's 1986 OOPSLA paper. It's short, clear, and provides an
elegant and efficient solution to a well-described problem.
The problem is how to simulate "multiple dispatch". You have three
kinds of graphical objects -- rectangles, ovals and bitmaps -- and
three kinds of display ports -- canvas, printer and remote -- and so
you need nine different displayOn: methods. How should one implement
this cleanly in a "single dispatch" language like Smalltalk, i.e., in
a language in which the method chosen depends on the message and on
the class of the target object, but not on the class of the arguments?
Dan argued, quite correctly, that it is a BAD IDEA to do explicit
test of class membership
(aDisplayPort isKindOf: canvas) ifTrue:
[ ... code to draw a rectangle on a canvas ...]
(aDisplayPort isKindOf: printer) ifTrue:
[ ... code to draw a rectangle on a printer ...]
because this code must be re-written each time a new kind of
DisplayPort is added to the system. Instead we should do a second
dispatch, to get the effect of the case statement:
aDisplayPort displayRectangle: self
... code to draw a rectangle on a canvas ...
... code to draw a rectangle on a printer ...
This is extensible and modular, and also efficient. It is used in
more complex patterns like the visitor pattern, and is fairly well
know to the readers of this list, I am sure.
As far as I am aware, this technique is called Double Dispatch.
Several of my Smalltalk books call it Double Dispatch, for example,
LaLonde and Pugh use this name is discussing the various
implementations of arithmetic in the number hierarchy, which now this
technique in preference to the "genericity numbers" used in earlier
Smalltalks. Skublics, Klimas and Thomas, in "Smalltalk with Style"
also use the term Double Dispatch for this technique.
My question is: who first introduced the term "Double Dispatch" to
refer to this technique? I was amazed to find that this term is
*not* used in Dan Ingall's original paper, although it is a perfectly
natural extension of Dan's Language. I'm asking because I recently
came across a paper that defined "Double Dispatch" to mean the
deprecated style of explicitly testing the class of the argument,
which (as far as I'm concerned) is exactly what Double Dispatch is
Does anyone have a reference to the first use of the term "Double Dispatch"?
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