How Do I Incorporate C Code or External Programs in Mathematica?

On almost all computer systems, it is possible to run external programs from directly within Mathematica. You can use Mathematica to control external C programs or to exchange information and data with C programs. Here we discuss some ways of running your external programs from Mathematica and setting up the MathLink communications API.

Exchanging Data via Interprocess Communication Mechanisms

Mathematica can communicate with external programs through operating systems that support interprocess-communication mechanisms such as pipes. In the simplest cases, the only communication you need is to send and receive plain text. In general, Mathematica allows you to treat streams of data exchanged with external programs just like files. In place of a file name, you give the external command to run, prefaced by an exclamation point.

<< "!command"

This tells Mathematica to run an external command and read in the output it produces.

expr >> "!command"

This feeds the textual form of expr to an external command. In the example below, the expression x^2 + y^2 is fed as input to the external command lpr, which, on a typical Berkeley Unix system, sends output to a printer.
x^2 + y^2 >> "!lpr"

ReadList["!command", Number]

This runs an external command and then reads in a list of the numbers it produces. In the example below, the external command squares 4 is run, and then Mathematica reads numbers from the output it produces.

ReadList["!squares 4", Number, RecordLists->True]

Special Note

With a text-based interface, putting ! at the beginning of a line causes the remainder of the line to be executed as an external command.

!squares 4

More Information on Using Interprocess Communication Mechanisms

See Section 1.11.10 of The Mathematica Book.

Linking C Code into Mathematica via MathLink

We just discussed how to exchange plain text with external programs. However, there are times when you will find it convenient to communicate with external programs at a higher level and to exchange more structured data with them. To do this, use MathLink, a standardized protocol for two-way communication between external programs and Mathematica.

In order to use MathLink, an external program has to include some special source code, which is usually distributed with Mathematica. MathLink allows external programs both to call Mathematica and to be called by Mathematica. This includes using Mathematica to call individual functions inside an external program. As described in Section 2.12 of The Mathematica Book, the process for communicating with external programs using MathLink is as follows.

  1. Set up a MathLink template file to specify how particular functions in Mathematica should call functions inside your external program.
  2. From the MathLink template file, generate source code to include in your program.
  3. When you start your program, the appropriate Mathematica definitions are automatically made, and when you call a particular Mathematica function, code in your external program is executed.

Setting Up a MathLink Template File

If you have a function defined in an external program, what you need to do in order to make it possible to call the function from within Mathematica is to add appropriate MathLink code that passes arguments to the function and takes back the results it produces. In simple cases, you can generate the necessary code just by giving an appropriate MathLink template for each external function. MathLink templates are conventionally put in files with names of the form Such files can also contain C source code interspersed between templates for different functions. The elements of a MathLink template file follow.


Here is an example MathLink template file called

:Function:      f
:Pattern:       f[x_Integer, y_Integer]
:Arguments:     {x, y}
:ArgumentTypes: {Integer, Integer}
:ReturnType:    Integer

Generating Source Code to Include in Your Program

Once you have constructed a MathLink template for a particular external function, you have to combine this template with the actual source code for the function. Assuming that the source code is written in the C programming language, you can do this by adding a line to include the standard MathLink header file and then inserting a small main program. Below is an example file f.c containing C source code.

Include the standard MathLink header file.

#include "mathlink.h"

Here is the actual source code for the function f.

int f(int x, int y) {
   return x+y;

This sets up the external program to be ready to take requests from Mathematica.

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
   return MLMain(argc, argv);

Note that the form of main required on different systems may be slightly different. The release notes included in the MathLink Developers Kit on your particular computer system should give the appropriate form.

Once you have set up the appropriate files, you need to process the MathLink template information and compile all of your source code. Typically you do this by running various external programs, but the details will depend on your computer system.

Under Unix, for example, the MathLink Developers Kit includes a program named mcc, which will preprocess MathLink templates in any file whose name ends with .tm and then call cc on the resulting C source code. The program mcc will pass command-line options and other files directly to cc.

This preprocesses and then compiles the resulting C source file together with the file f.c.

mcc -o f.exe f.c

On systems other than Unix, the MathLink Developers Kit typically includes a program named mprep, which you have to call directly, giving as input all of the .tm files that you want to preprocess. The program mprep will generate C source code as output, which you can then feed to a C compiler.

Calling the External Function from Mathematica

Now, you can call and use the external program from Mathematica. First, use Install to let Mathematica know about the external program.


Now, call the external function f(int x, int y), and two integers are added together.

f[6, 9]

More Information on Using MathLink

Much more information on using MathLink and setting up communications between Mathematica and external programs is available in The Mathematica Book and in the MathLink documentation. Take a look at the following for more information.

The Mathematica Book


MathLink Documentation

For the complete documentation, go to the Add-ons -> MathLink Library documentation in the Help Browser. There you'll find a general introduction to MathLink, instructions on how to use the various MathLink commands, and system-specific information.

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