What is the Difference between AutoLISP and LISP?

LISP, a pioneering programming language, has paved the way for many of the modern languages we use today. But within specific sectors like CAD (Computer-Aided Design), a specialized dialect known as AutoLISP emerged, specifically tailored for Autodesk’s AutoCAD software. At a glance, both might seem identical, but their nuances render them distinct in functionality and use. Delving into the intricacies of these languages, we uncover the core differences that distinguish general-purpose LISP from the CAD-centric AutoLISP, revealing the profound impact of their unique applications on industries and developers alike.


  • LISP is a general-purpose programming language developed in 1958, influential in shaping many modern languages.
  • AutoLISP is a derivative of LISP, designed exclusively for AutoCAD customizations by Autodesk.
  • The two languages, while bearing similarities, differ significantly in their execution environments, function sets, and integration capabilities.
  • AutoLISP offers specialized CAD functions, graphics capabilities, and data types not present in standard LISP.
  • Documentation & support for LISP is broad and community-driven, while AutoLISP’s primary documentation source is Autodesk.

Table listing the differences between AutoLISP and LISP:

Aspect LISP AutoLISP
Origin Developed in 1958 by John McCarthy Based on LISP, developed by Autodesk
Primary Use General-purpose programming language Specifically tailored for CAD customization
Execution Environment Runs on a variety of platforms Primarily runs within AutoCAD
Function Set Standard LISP functions Mix of standard LISP functions and AutoCAD-specific ones
File Extensions Commonly .lisp, .cl .lsp, .vlx
Graphics Capability Depends on platform or library, generally not built-in Built-in CAD graphics functions
Integration Can run standalone or be integrated into other systems Integrated directly with AutoCAD
Libraries Has a wide range of standard LISP libraries Has libraries tailored to CAD operations
Data Types Standard LISP data types Standard LISP data types + AutoCAD specific data types
Error Handling General error handling mechanisms Error handling both from LISP and CAD perspectives
Documentation & Support Broad community support and extensive documentation Documentation provided primarily by Autodesk
Learning Curve General programming concepts applicable to many contexts Requires understanding of both LISP and CAD operations
Interactivity Through REPL (Read Eval Print Loop) environments Through command-line interface in AutoCAD and Visual LISP IDE

This table should provide a more comprehensive contrast between LISP and AutoLISP.

What is the Difference between AutoLISP and LISP?

Let’s delve into each difference:


LISP: LISP was developed in 1958 by John McCarthy as a symbolic computing language. It’s one of the oldest high-level programming languages and has influenced many other languages.

AutoLISP: AutoLISP is a dialect of the LISP language designed specifically for use with the full version of AutoCAD and its derivatives. It was developed by Autodesk to provide a customization platform for their CAD software.

Primary Use

LISP: It’s a general-purpose programming language. It has been used in various domains from artificial intelligence to system administration.

Example: Implementing a recursive algorithm to calculate factorial of a number.

AutoLISP: Primarily used for CAD (Computer-Aided Design) customization.

Example: Automating the drawing of a specific set of objects in AutoCAD.

Execution Environment

LISP: Can run on multiple platforms and environments. There are multiple implementations like SBCL, Clozure CL, and many others.

AutoLISP: Primarily designed to run within the AutoCAD environment.

Function Set

LISP: Provides a set of standard LISP functions.

AutoLISP: While it retains most of the standard LISP functions, it also adds functions specifically tailored for AutoCAD operations.

File Extensions

LISP: Files usually have the extensions .lisp or .cl.

AutoLISP: Uses the extensions .lsp for source code and .vlx for compiled code.

Graphics Capability

LISP: Graphics capability isn’t built-in and depends on the platform or library being used.

AutoLISP: Has built-in functions tailored for CAD graphics, allowing users to interact with and manipulate CAD drawings.


LISP: It’s versatile and can either run as a standalone environment or be integrated into other systems.

AutoLISP: It’s integrated directly into the AutoCAD software.


LISP: Has a wide variety of libraries available for different purposes, thanks to its longevity and broad use.

AutoLISP: Contains libraries and functions specifically tailored for CAD operations within AutoCAD.

Data Types

LISP: Uses standard LISP data types like lists, symbols, and numbers.

AutoLISP: In addition to standard LISP data types, it also includes AutoCAD-specific data types for representing entities in a CAD drawing.

Error Handling

LISP: Has general error handling mechanisms that are applicable in most programming scenarios.

AutoLISP: Provides error handling both from a LISP perspective and from a CAD operations perspective.

Documentation & Support

LISP: Being a general-purpose language with a long history, it has extensive documentation and broad community support.

AutoLISP: The primary source of documentation and support comes from Autodesk, the company behind AutoCAD.

Learning Curve

LISP: Learning involves understanding general programming concepts, which can be applied in many different contexts.

AutoLISP: Requires knowledge of both LISP programming and CAD operations, which can be a steeper curve for those unfamiliar with AutoCAD.


LISP: Most LISP environments provide a REPL (Read Eval Print Loop) which allows for immediate feedback and interactive development.

AutoLISP: Offers interaction through the command-line interface in AutoCAD and through the Visual LISP IDE (Integrated Development Environment), which provides tools for testing and debugging AutoLISP programs.


Having ventured through the nuanced world of LISP and AutoLISP, it’s evident that while they share a common lineage, their applications and functionalities diverge significantly. LISP, with its rich history, remains a testament to versatile programming, influential across a myriad of domains. On the other hand, AutoLISP, a tailored tool for the CAD community, showcases the adaptability of programming languages to meet industry-specific needs.

So, why does this matter? Understanding such distinctions equips developers and industries alike to harness the right tools for the right tasks, optimizing both productivity and innovation. In essence, it’s not merely about coding; it’s about crafting solutions with precision.