The language includes features intended to support programs that could perform general problem solving, including lists, associations, schemas (frames), dynamic memory allocation, data types, recursion, associative retrieval, functions as arguments, generators (streams), and cooperative multitasking. IPL pioneered the concept of list processing, albeit in an assembly-language style.
An IPL computer has:
The main data structure of IPL is the list, but lists are more intricate structures than in many languages. A list consists of a singly-linked sequence of symbols, as might be expected -- plus some description lists, which are subsidiary singly-linked lists interpreted as alternating attribute names and values. IPL provides primitives to access and mutate attribute value by name. The description lists are given local names (of the form 9-1). So, a list called L1 holding the symbols S4 and S5, and described by associating value V1 to attribute A1 and V2 to A2, would be stored as follows. 0 indicates the end of a list; the cell names 100, 101, etc. are automatically generated internal symbols whose values are irrelevant. These cells can be scattered throughout memory; only L1, which uses a regional name that must be globally known, needs to reside in a specific place.
IPL is an assembly language for manipulating lists. It has a few cells which are used as special-purpose registers. H1, for example, is the program counter. The SYMB field of H1 is the name of the current instruction. However, H1 is interpreted as a list; the LINK of H1 is, in modern terms, a pointer to the head of the call stack. For example, subroutine calls push the SYMB of H1 onto this stack.
H2 is the free-list. Procedures which need to allocate memory grab cells off of H2; procedures which are finished with memory put it on H2. On entry to a function, the list of parameters is given in H0; on exit, the results should be returned in H0. Many procedures return a boolean result indicating success or failure, which is put in H5. Ten cells, W0-W9, are reserved for public working storage. Procedures are "morally bound" (to quote the CACM article) to save and restore the values of these cells.
There are eight instructions, based on the values of P: subroutine call, push/pop S to H0; push/pop the symbol in S to the list attached to S; copy value to S; conditional branch. In these instructions, S is the target. S is either the value of the SYMB field if Q=0, the symbol in the cell named by SYMB if Q=1, or the symbol in the cell named by the symbol in the cell named by SYMB if Q=2. In all cases but conditional branch, the LINK field of the cell tells which instruction to execute next.
IPL has a library of some 150 basic operations. These include such operations as:
The first application of IPL was to demonstrate that the theorems in Principia Mathematica which were laboriously proven by hand, by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, could in fact be proven by computation. According to Simon's autobiography Models of My Life, this first application was developed first by hand simulation, using his children as the computing elements, while writing on and holding up note cards as the registers which contained the state variables of the program.
IPL was used to implement several early artificial intelligence programs, also by the same authors: the Logic Theory Machine (1956), the General Problem Solver (1957), and their computer chess program NSS (1958).
Several versions of IPL were created: IPL-I (never implemented), IPL-II (1957 for JOHNNIAC), IPL-III (existed briefly), IPL-IV, IPL-V (1958, for IBM 650, IBM 704, IBM 7090, many others. Widely used), IPL-VI.
IPL arguably introduced several programming language features:
Many of these features were generalized, cleaned up, and incorporated into Lisp and from there into a wide spectrum of programming languages over the next several decades.