Derek Jones from The Shape of Code
The modern answer to what instructions should a computer support is: lots (e.g., many kinds of: add, subtract, compare, branch, load, store, etc). John von Neumann’s famous First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, written in 1945, specifies 97 instructions (later, actual implementations contained fewer instructions) and modern Intel processors contain several thousand instructions.
The Turing machine has a very simple instruction set; the machine is driven by a lookup table that specifies one or more of the operations: erase/write a symbol (to the cell currently under the read/write head), move the read/write head left or right (on a tape containing cells), and load a new state (which may be the same as the current one).
When computers were new, the lure of creating a minimalist instruction set had theoretical and practical appeal (valve computers were large and unreliable, reducing the number of components improved reliability and reduced costs).
The design of the IAS machine, built in the late 1940s, was based on von Neumann’s design. Haskell Curry came up with a minimalist set of four instructions that could be used to implement its supported instructions (the idea was that programs would be stored in minimalist form to reduce storage overheads).
Minimalist instruction sets still have theoretical appeal.
Simplicity (rather than minimalism) became fashionable in the 1980s with RISC. This was a reaction to the implementation/runtime costs of very complicated of instructions found in DEC’s VAX and later Motorola’s 68000 processors. Supporting these complicated instructions generated additional overhead for the simpler instructions (which is what most programs spent most of their time executing). The idea behind RISC was that simplifying the instruction set would reduce cpu design costs, improve performance (by making simple instructions fast); leaving the complicated stuff to be supported via software.
Starting out with ‘simple’ MIPS, RISC cpus got successively more complicated with SPARC, Motorola’s MC88000 and then IBM’s RS/6000. I worked on code generators for the SPARC and MC88000 and found them somewhat dull after working on CISC processors. There were huge arguments around RISC vs. CISC (I suspect that many of those involved had never used a RISC processor), but then this was back in the days when many programmers knew a lot of the technical details about the processors they used. (How many of today’s programmers can name the Intel x86 registers?)
More background on 1950s minimalism in the paper: Less is more in the Fifties. Encounters between Logical Minimalism and Computer Design during the 1950s.
These days people are inventing very different architectures within which existing instructions have to operate, rather than radically new instructions.