Getting Started with Lisp

Lisp is an old and powerful language that influences modern languages like C#. Lisp is also difficult to jump into. I’ll outline where to go to download a compiler and the steps needed to start using Lisp today.

Lisp is known as the programmable programming language. I became interested in Lisp when I learned how many of the sexy features in C#, like anonymous delegates, were implemented in Lisp 20 years ago. I wanted to find out more about Lisp but I didn’t know where to start. The first step I found is to setup a Lisp environment.

Download a Compiler

Lisp has many different dialects. Common Lisp is one dialect. There are several different implementations of Common Lisp similar to the different implementations of C++. The first step is to choose and download a specific Lisp compiler. I decided on Steel Bank Common Lisp (SBCL) for no rhyme or reason. One hurdle to overcome is understanding the unorthodox grid of available downloads.


The secret to the grid is to look for your OS in left column and your processor in the top column. I was directed to the yellow square labeled 1.0.9. This links to a installation file called sbcl-1.0.9-x86-windows-binary.msi. Executing the installer will install some files to the in C:\Program Files\Steel Bank Common Lisp\1.0.9folder. The most important file is the sbcl.exe. I actually created a shortcut to this file and placed it in my C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu\Programs\Lispfolder.


Stand your Ground

Running the sbcl.exe executable and firing up Lisp for the first time is a little daunting. You’ll get a sappy message about a Kitten of Death and then just a * prompt, almost mocking you saying

Here’s your Lisp environment…now what are you going to do?

Just shoot back with this and press enter:

(+ 2 3)

Lisp will reply with:


Lisp is conquered. I now feel confident in taking the next step and actually studying the language to see what it can do. For this I highly recommend Practical Common Lisp.

Future Plans

I like the idea of being able to pass around functions and redefine them on the fly. I feel similar to Lawrence and appreciate how clean the language is. It is void of a lot of keywords. I don’t have any plans of writing an entire application in Lisp, but if I run into needing a small utility app, I will definitely consider using Lisp.