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In general parlance, bootstrapping usually refers to the starting of a self-sustaining process that is supposed to proceed without external input. In computer technology the term (usually shortened to booting) usually refers to the process of loading the basic software into the memory of a computer after power-on or general reset, especially the operating system which will then take care of loading other software as needed. The term appears to have originated in the early 19th century United States (particularly in the phrase "pull oneself over a fence by ones bootstraps"), to mean an absurdly impossible action, an adynaton.[1][2][3]

Tall boots may have a tab, loop or handle at the top known as a bootstrap, allowing one to use fingers or a boot hook tool to help pulling the boots on. The saying "to pull oneself up by ones bootstraps"[3] was already in use during the 19th century as an example of an impossible task. The idiom dates at least to 1834, when it appeared in the Workingmans Advocate: "It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots."[4] In 1860 it appeared in a comment on metaphysical philosophy: "The attempt of the mind to analyze itself [is] an effort analogous to one who would lift himself by his own bootstraps."[5] Bootstrap as a metaphor, meaning to better oneself by ones own unaided efforts, was in use in 1922.[6] This metaphor spawned additional metaphors for a series of self-sustaining processes that proceed without external help.[7]

Software development[edit]

Bootstrapping can also refer to the development of successively more complex, faster programming environments. The simplest environment will be, perhaps, a very basic text editor (e.g., ed) and an assembler program. Using these tools, one can write a more complex text editor, and a simple compiler for a higher-level language and so on, until one can have a graphical IDE and an extremely high-level programming language.

Historically, bootstrapping also refers to an early technique for computer program development on new hardware. The technique described in this paragraph has been replaced by the use of a cross compiler executed by a pre-existing computer. Bootstrapping in program development began during the 1950s when each program was constructed on paper in decimal code or in binary code, bit by bit (1s and 0s), because there was no high-level computer language, no compiler, no assembler, and no linker. A tiny assembler program was hand-coded for a new computer (for example the IBM 650) which converted a few instructions into binary or decimal code: A1. This simple assembler program was then rewritten in its just-defined assembly language but with extensions that would enable the use of some additional mnemonics for more complex operation codes. The enhanced assemblers source program was then assembled by its predecessors executable (A1) into binary or decimal code to give A2, and the cycle repeated (now with those enhancements available), until the entire instruction set was coded, branch addresses were automatically calculated, and other conveniences (such as conditional assembly, macros, optimisations, etc.) established. This was how the early assembly program SOAP (Symbolic Optimal Assembly Program) was developed. Compilers, linkers, loaders, and utilities were then coded in assembly language, further continuing the bootstrapping process of developing complex software systems by using simpler software.

The term was also championed by Doug Engelbart to refer to his belief that organizations could better evolve by improving the process they use for improvement (thus obtaining a compounding effect over time). His SRI team that developed the NLS hypertext system applied this strategy by using the tool they had developed to improve the tool.

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