Creating a C++ callback function from a class instance method

I have been playing around with the Boost library and, in particular, the boost::thread multithreading library.

There a thread is simply created by constructing an object of type boost::thread, and passing in to the constructor a pointer to the function to be executed in the newly spawned thread.

There is much more to it, and I encourage you to read the documentation, but that gave me an interesting opportunity to ponder the issue of how to create a thread by instead passing in a pointer to a class’s method: the need typically arises when one does not want to use global variables (which need to be guarded against race conditions) or where parameters are necessary for the execution of the method and/or return values are expected.

Granted, the boost::thread constructor allows you to pass in up to nine parameters, so that’s rarely an issue, but I just wanted to find out a reasonably general way to achieve this; it turns out that this is far from trivial, and I thought I’d share my findings.

For the impatient, this is the solution:

template<typename T, typename V, typename R>
class MakeCallback {

// Member method in T(ype), takes parameter V(alue),
// and returns an object of type R(esult)
// Note the parentheses around (T::*): without them,
// the compiler gets confused.
typedef R(T::*func)(const V&);
func f_;
T& t_;
V value_;
R* res_;
MakeCallback(T& type, func f, const V& value, R* res = NULL) :
f_(f), t_(type), value_(value), res_(res) { }
virtual ~MakeCallback() { }
void operator()() {
if (res_)
// Note here the parenthesis around t_.*f_
// They are necessary, or a compiler error will be generated
*res_ = (t_.*f_)(value_);

// This allows the pointer to the result value to
// be set after the object has been created
void set_res(R* res) { res_ = res; }

and this is how one uses it:

int main(int argc, char[}* argv) {
A a(33);
int res;
// Generally, you don't need the & operator to take a function's pointer.
// But in this case it's mandatory, or the compiler will complain
// about doSomething() not being static.
// In any event, the use of & makes your intent clearer (you are taking
// the method's address,
// not invoking it) and I encourage you to use it consistently, even where
// this is not stricly necessary.
MakeCallback&lt>A, int, int> mc(a, &A::doSomething, 22, &res);
boost::thread do_it(mc);
std::cout << "And the result is : " << res << std::endl;

B b;
boost::thread another(MakeCallback<A, std::string, B>(a, &A::doSomethingElse, "22.13", &b));
std::cout << "..and B is " << b.get() << std::endl;

given the following declarations for A and B:

class B {
float x;
B(float s = 0.0) : x(s) {}
float get() { return x; }

class A {
int num_;
A(int num) : num_(num) { }

int doSomething(const int& k) {
return num_ + k;

B doSomethingElse(const std::string& s) {
double b = ::atof(s.c_str()) + num_;
return B(b);

A couple of points that have caused me much head-scratching and I thought it worth passing on:

  • you must use the ‘&’ operator in front of A::doSomething, or the compiler will complain about it not being a static function;
  • note we are, in fact, calling an instance method: in other words, we expect to have instance-specific values stored in the class (A in this case) that our method (doSomething()) will use
  • note also the use of a pointer (R* res_) to store the return value: this is important; without it, the return value of the method call ((t_.*f_)(value_)) will be lost!

    This is because, in the call to boost::thread(mc) the compiler automatically created a copy of our object (using the compiler-generated copy constructor; see Scott Meyer’s “Effective C++”, Item 5)

  • Note also the calls to thread::join() – without them, you’d have a race on the returned values: possibly reading them, before the actual method (doSomething()) had any chance of updating it;

Just to be clear, this rather trivial implementation is not meant to be used in real code (if you need something along these lines, boost::bind is what you want) but it was an interesting exercise in how to deal with generics, functors and callbacks.


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