Section 5.2
Constructors and Object Initialization


OBJECT TYPES IN JAVA ARE VERY DIFFERENT from the primitive types. Simply declaring a variable whose type is given as a class does not automatically create an object of that class. Objects must be explicitly constructed. For the computer, the process of constructing an object means, first, finding some unused memory in the heap that can be used to hold the object and, second, filling in the object's instance variables. As a programmer, you don't care where in memory the object is stored, but you will usually want to exercise some control over what initial values are stored in a new object's instance variables. In many cases, you will also want to do more complicated initialization or bookkeeping every time an object is created.

An instance variable can be assigned an initial value in its declaration, just like any other variable. For example, consider a class named PairOfDice. An object of this class will represent a pair of dice. It will contain two instance variables to represent the numbers showing on the dice and an instance method for rolling the dice:

        public class PairOfDice {
        
            public int die1 = 3;   // Number showing on the first die.
            public int die2 = 4;   // Number showing on the second die.

            public void roll() {
                    // Roll the dice by setting each of the dice to be
                    // a random number between 1 and 6.
                 die1 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
                 die2 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
            }
            
        } // end class PairOfDice

The instance variables die1 and die2 are initialized to the values 3 and 4 respectively. These initializations are executed whenever a PairOfDice object is constructed. It's important to understand when and how this happens. There can be many PairOfDice objects. Each time one is created, it gets its own instance variables, and the assignments "die1 = 3" and "die2 = 4" are executed to fill in the values of those variables. To make this clearer, consider a variation of the PairOfDice class:

        public class PairOfDice {
        
            public int die1 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
            public int die2 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;

            public void roll() {
                 die1 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
                 die2 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
            }
            
        } // end class PairOfDice

Here, the dice are initialized to random values, as if a new pair of dice were being thrown onto the gaming table. Since the initialization is executed for each new object, a set of random initial values will be computed for each new pair of dice. Different pairs of dice can have different initial values. For initialization of static member variables, of course, the situation is quite different. There is only one copy of a static variable, and initialization of that variable is executed just once, when the class is first loaded.

If you don't provide any initial value for an instance variable, a default initial value is provided automatically. Instance variables of numerical type (int, double, etc.) are automatically initialized to zero if you provide no other values; boolean variables are initialized to false; and char variables, to the Unicode character with code number zero. An instance variable can also be a variable of object type. For such variables, the default initial value is null. (In particular, since Strings are objects, the default initial value for String variables is null.)

Objects are created with the operator, new. For example, a program that wants to use a PairOfDice object could say:

        PairOfDice dice;   // Declare a variable of type PairOfDice.
        dice = new PairOfDice();  // Construct a new object and store a
                                  //   reference to it in the variable.

In this example, "new PairOfDice()" is an expression that allocates memory for the object, initializes the object's instance variables, and then returns a reference to the object. This reference is the value of the expression, and that value is stored by the assignment statement in the variable, dice. Part of this expression, "PairOfDice()", looks like subroutine call, and that is no accident. It is, in fact, a call to a special type of subroutine called a constructor. This might puzzle you, since there is no such subroutine in the class definition. However, every class has a constructor. If the programmer doesn't provide one, then the system will provide a default constructor. This default constructor does nothing beyond the basics: allocate memory and initialize instance variables. If you want more than that to happen when an object is created, you can include one or more constructors in the class definition.

The definition of a constructor looks much like the definition of any other subroutine, with three exceptions. A constructor does not have any return type (not even void). The name of the constructor must be the same as the name of the class in which it is defined. The only modifiers that can be used on a constructor definition are the access modifiers public, private, and protected. (In particular, a constructor can't be declared static.)

However, a constructor does have a subroutine body of the usual form, a block of statements. There are no restrictions on what statements can be used. And it can have a list of formal parameters. In fact, the ability to include parameters is one of the main reasons for using constructors. The parameters can provide data to be used in the construction of the object. For example, a constructor for the PairOfDice class could provide the values that are initially showing on the dice. Here is what the class would look like in that case:

        public class PairOfDice {
        
            public int die1;   // Number showing on the first die.
            public int die2;   // Number showing on the second die.
            
            public PairOfDice(int val1, int val2) {
                    // Constructor.  Creates a pair of dice that
                    // are initially showing the values val1 and val2.
                 die1 = val1;  // Assign specified values 
                 die2 = val2;  //              to the instance variables.
            }

            public void roll() {
                    // Roll the dice by setting each of the dice to be
                    // a random number between 1 and 6.
                 die1 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
                 die2 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
            }
            
        } // end class PairOfDice

The constructor is declared as "public PairOfDice(int val1, int val2)...", with no return type and with the same name as the name of the class. This is how the Java compiler recognizes a constructor. The constructor has two parameters, and values for these parameters must be provided when the constructor is called. For example, the expression "new PairOfDice(3,4)" would create a PairOfDice object in which the values of the instance variables die1 and die2 are initially 3 and 4. Of course, in a program, the value returned by the constructor should be used in some way, as in

        
      PairOfDice dice;            // Declare a variable of type PairOfDice.
      dice = new PairOfDice(1,1); // Let dice refer to a new PairOfDice
                                  //   object that initially shows 1, 1.

Now that we've added a constructor to the PairOfDice class, we can no longer create an object by saying "new PairOfDice()"! The system provides a default constructor for a class only if the class definition does not already include a constructor. However, this is not a big problem, since we can add a second constructor to the class, one that has no parameters. In fact, you can have as many different constructors as you want, as long as their signatures are different, that is, as long as they have different numbers or types of formal parameters. In the PairOfDice class, we might have a constructor with no parameters which produces a pair of dice showing random numbers:

        public class PairOfDice {
        
            public int die1;   // Number showing on the first die.
            public int die2;   // Number showing on the second die.
            
            public PairOfDice() {
                    // Constructor.  Rolls the dice, so that they initially
                    // show some random values.
                roll();  // Call the roll() method to roll the dice.
            }
            
            public PairOfDice(int val1, int val2) {
                    // Constructor.  Creates a pair of dice that
                    // are initially showing the values val1 and val2.
                die1 = val1;  // Assign specified values 
                die2 = val2;  //            to the instance variables.
            }

            public void roll() {
                    // Roll the dice by setting each of the dice to be
                    // a random number between 1 and 6.
                die1 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
                die2 = (int)(Math.random()*6) + 1;
            }
            
        } // end class PairOfDice

Now we have the option of constructing a PairOfDice object either with "new PairOfDice()" or with "new PairOfDice(x,y)", where x and y are int-valued expressions.

This class, once it is written, can be used in any program that needs to work with one or more pairs of dice. None of those programs will ever have to use the obscure incantation "(int)(Math.random()*6)+1", because it's done inside the PairOfDice class. And the programmer, having once gotten the dice-rolling thing straight will never have to worry about it again. Here, for example, is a main program that uses the PairOfDice class to count how many times two pairs of dice are rolled before the two pairs come up showing the same value:

    public class RollTwoPairs {
    
        public static void main(String[] args) {
                     
            PairOfDice firstDice;  // Refers to the first pair of dice.
            firstDice = new PairOfDice();
            
            PairOfDice secondDice; // Refers to the second pair of dice.
            secondDice = new PairOfDice();
            
            int countRolls;  // Counts how many times the two pairs of
                             //    dice have been rolled.
            
            int total1;      // Total showing on first pair of dice.
            int total2;      // Total showing on second pair of dice.
            
            countRolls = 0;
            
            do {  // Roll the two pairs of dice until totals are the same.
            
                firstDice.roll();    // Roll the first pair of dice.
                total1 = firstDice.die1 + firstDice.die2;   // Get total.
                System.out.println("First pair comes up  " + total1);
                
                secondDice.roll();    // Roll the second pair of dice.
                total2 = secondDice.die1 + secondDice.die2;   // Get total.
                System.out.println("Second pair comes up " + total2);
                
                countRolls++;   // Count this roll.
                
                System.out.println();  // Blank line.
                
            } while (total1 != total2);
            
            System.out.println("It took " + countRolls 
                              + " rolls until the totals were the same.");
            
        } // end main()
    
    } // end class RollTwoPairs
         

This applet simulates this program:

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support Java.


Constructors are subroutines, but they are subroutines of a special type. They are certainly not instance methods, since they don't belong to objects. Since they are responsible for creating objects, they exist before any objects have been created. The are more like static member subroutines, but they are not and cannot be declared to be static. In fact, according to the Java language specification, they are technically not members of the class at all!

Unlike other subroutines, a constructor can only be called using the new operator, in an expression that has the form

new  class-name ( parameter-list )

where the parameter-list is possibly empty. I call this an expression because it computes and returns a value, namely a reference to the object that is constructed. Most often, you will store the returned reference in a variable, but it is also legal to use a constructor call in other ways, for example as a parameter in a subroutine call or as part of a more complex expression. Of course, if you don't save the reference in a variable, you won't have any way of referring to the object that was just created.

A constructor call is more complicated than an ordinary subroutine or function call. It is helpful to understand the exact steps that the computer goes through to execute a constructor call:

  1. First, the computer gets a block of unused memory in the heap, large enough to hold an object of the specified type.
  2. It initializes the instance variables of the object. If the declaration of an instance variable specifies an initial value, then that value is computed and stored in the instance variable. Otherwise, the default initial value is used.
  3. The actual parameters in the constructor, if any, are evaluated, and the values are assigned to the formal parameters of the constructor.
  4. The statements in the body of the constructor, if any, are executed.
  5. A reference to the object is returned as the value of the constructor call.

The end result of this is that you have a reference to a newly constructed object. You can use this reference to get at the instance variables in that object or to call its instance methods.


For another example, let's rewrite the Student class that was used in Section 1. I'll add a constructor, and I'll also take the opportunity to make the instance variable, name, private.

        public class Student {
        
           private String name;                 // Student's name.
           public double test1, test2, test3;   // Grades on three tests.
           
           Student(String theName) {
                // Constructor for Student objects;
                // provides a name for the Student.
              name = theName;
           }
           
           public String getName() {
                // Accessor method for reading value of private
                // instance variable, name.
              return name;
           }
           
           public double getAverage() { 
                // Compute average test grade.
              return (test1 + test2 + test3) / 3;
           }

        }  // end of class Student

An object of type Student contains information about some particular student. The constructor in this class has a parameter of type String, which specifies the name of that student. Objects of type Student can be created with statements such as:

        std = new Student("John Smith");
        std1 = new Student("Mary Jones");

In the original version of this class, the value of name had to be assigned by a program after it created the object of type Student. There was no guarantee that the programmer would always remember to set the name properly. In the new version of the class, there is no way to create a Student object except by calling the constructor, and that constructor automatically sets the name. The programmer's life is made easier, and whole hordes of frustrating bugs are squashed before they even have a change to be born.

Another type of guarantee is provided by the private modifier. Since the instance variable, name, is private, there is no way for any part of the program outside the Student class to get at the name directly. The program sets the value of name, indirectly, when it calls the constructor. I've provided a function, getName(), that can be used from outside the class to find out the name of the student. But I haven't provided any way to change the name. Once a student object is created, it keeps the same name as long as it exists.


Garbage Collection

So far, this section has been about creating objects. What about destroying them? In Java, the destruction of objects takes place automatically.

An object exists on the heap, and it can be accessed only through variables that hold references to the object. What should be done with an object if there are no variables that refer to it? Such things can happen. Consider the following two statements (though in reality, you'd never do anything like this):

           Student std = new Student("John Smith");
           std = null;

In the first line, a reference to a newly created Student object is stored in the variable std. But in the next line, the value of std is changed, and the reference to the Student object is gone. In fact, there are now no references whatsoever to that object stored in any variable. So there is no way for the program ever to use the object again. It might as well not exist. In fact, the memory occupied by the object should be reclaimed to be used for another purpose.

Java uses a procedure called garbage collection to reclaim memory occupied by objects that are no longer accessible to a program. It is the responsibility of the system, not the programmer, to keep track of which objects are "garbage". In the above example, it was very easy to see that the Student object had become garbage. Usually, it's much harder. If an object has been used for a while, there might be several references to the object stored in several variables. The object doesn't become garbage until all those references have been dropped.

In many other programing languages, it's the programmer's responsibility to delete the garbage. Unfortunately, keeping track of memory usage is very error-prone, and many serious program bugs are caused by such errors. A programmer might accidently delete an object even though there are still references to that object. This is called a dangling pointer error, and it leads to problems when the program tries to access an object that is no longer there. Another type of error is a memory leak, where a programmer neglects to delete objects that are no longer in use. This can lead to filling memory with objects that are completely inaccessible, and the program might run out of memory even though, in fact, large amounts of memory are being wasted.

Because Java uses garbage collection, such errors are simply impossible. You might wonder why all languages don't use garbage collection. In the past, it was considered too slow and wasteful. However, research into garbage collection techniques combined with the incredible speed of modern computers have combined to make garbage collection feasible. Programmers should rejoice.


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