Java 101: Foundations

Java 101: Inheritance in Java, Part 1

Define hierarchical relationships between Java classes

Java supports class reuse through inheritance and composition. In this two-part article we'll focus on inheritance, one of the fundamental concepts of object-oriented programming. First, you'll learn how to use the extends keyword to derive a child class from a parent class, invoke parent class constructors and methods, and override methods. Then, in Part 2, we'll tour java.lang.Object and its methods. Object is Java's ultimate superclass, from which every other class inherits.

To complete your learning about inheritance, be sure to check out the Java 101 composition and inheritance primer. You'll learn why composition is an important complement to inheritance, and how to use it to guard against issues with encapsulation in your Java programs.

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Source code for "Java 101: Inheritance in Java, Part 1." Created by Jeff Friesen for JavaWorld.

Relating classes through inheritance

Java 101: Inheritance in Java, Figure 1Jeff Friesen

Figure 1. A pair of inheritance hierarchies are rooted in the common vehicle category

Inheritance is a programming construct that software developers use to establish is-a relationships between categories. Inheritance enables us to derive more-specific categories from more-generic ones. The more-specific category is a kind of the more-generic category. For example, a checking account is a kind of account in which you can make deposits and withdrawals. Similarly, a truck is a kind of vehicle used for hauling large items.

Inheritance can descend through multiple levels, leading to ever-more-specific categories. As an example, Figure 1 shows car and truck inheriting from vehicle; station wagon inheriting from car; and garbage truck inheriting from truck. Arrows point from more-specific "child" categories (lower down) to less-specific "parent" categories (higher up).

Java 101: Inheritance in Java Jeff Friesen

Figure 2. Hovercraft multiply inherits from land vehicle and water vehicle categories

This example illustrates single inheritance in which a child category inherits state and behaviors from one immediate parent category. In contrast, multiple inheritance enables a child category to inherit state and behaviors from two or more immediate parent categories. The hierarchy in Figure 2 illustrates multiple inheritance.

Categories are described by classes. Java supports single inheritance through class extension, in which one class directly inherits accessible fields and methods from another class by extending that class. Java doesn't support multiple inheritance through class extension, however.

Class extension: Is-a relationships

Java supports class extension via the extends keyword. When present, extends specifies a parent-child relationship between two classes. Below I use extends to establish a relationship between classes Vehicle and Car, and then between Account and SavingsAccount:

Listing 1. The extends keyword specifies a parent-child relationship


class Vehicle
{
   // member declarations
}
class Car extends Vehicle
{
   // inherit accessible members from Vehicle
   // provide own member declarations
}
class Account
{
   // member declarations
}
class SavingsAccount extends Account
{
   // inherit accessible members from Account
   // provide own member declarations
}

The extends keyword is specified after the class name and before another class name. The class name before extends identifies the child and the class name after extends identifies the parent. It's impossible to specify multiple class names after extends because Java doesn't support class-based multiple inheritance.

These examples codify is-a relationships: Car is a specialized Vehicle and SavingsAccount is a specialized Account. Vehicle and Account are known as base classes, parent classes, or superclasses. Car and SavingsAccount are known as derived classes, child classes, or subclasses.

Child classes inherit accessible fields and methods from their parent classes and other ancestors. They never inherit constructors, however. Instead, child classes declare their own constructors. Furthermore, they can declare their own fields and methods to differentiate them from their parents. Consider Listing 2.

Listing 2. An Account parent class declares its own constructor, fields, and methods


class Account
{
   private String name;

   private long amount;

   Account(String name, long amount)
   {
      this.name = name;
      setAmount(amount);
   }

   void deposit(long amount)
   {
      this.amount += amount;
   }

   String getName()
   {
      return name;
   }

   long getAmount()
   {
      return amount;
   }

   void setAmount(long amount)
   {
      this.amount = amount;
   }
}

Listing 2 describes a generic bank account class that has a name and an initial amount, which are both set in the constructor. Also, it lets users make deposits. (You can make withdrawals by depositing negative amounts of money but we'll ignore this possibility.) Note that the account name must be set when an account is created.

Listing 3 presents a SavingsAccount child class that extends its Account parent class.

Listing 3. A SavingsAccount child class extends its Account parent class


class SavingsAccount extends Account
{
   SavingsAccount(long amount)
   {
      super("savings", amount);
   }
}

The SavingsAccount class is trivial because it doesn't need to declare additional fields or methods. It does, however, declare a constructor that initializes the fields in its Account superclass. Initialization happens when Account's constructor is called via Java's super keyword, followed by a parenthesized argument list.

Listing 4 further extends Account with a CheckingAccount class.

Listing 4. A CheckingAccount child class extends its Account parent class


class CheckingAccount extends Account
{
   CheckingAccount(long amount)
   {
      super("checking", amount);
   }

   void withdraw(long amount)
   {
      setAmount(getAmount() - amount);
   }
}

CheckingAccount is a little more substantial than SavingsAccount because it declares a withdraw() method. Notice this method's calls to setAmount() and getAmount, which CheckingAccount inherits from Account. You cannot directly access the amount field in Account because this field is declared private (see Listing 2).

Demonstrating the account class hierarchy

I've created an AccountDemo application class that lets you try out the Account class hierarchy. First take a look at AccountDemo's source code.

Listing 5. AccountDemo demonstrates the account class hierarchy


class AccountDemo
{
   public static void main(String[] args)
   {
      SavingsAccount sa = new SavingsAccount(10000);
      System.out.println("account name: " + sa.getName());
      System.out.println("initial amount: " + sa.getAmount());
      sa.deposit(5000);
      System.out.println("new amount after deposit: " + sa.getAmount());

      CheckingAccount ca = new CheckingAccount(20000);
      System.out.println("account name: " + ca.getName());
      System.out.println("initial amount: " + ca.getAmount());
      ca.deposit(6000);
      System.out.println("new amount after deposit: " + ca.getAmount());
      ca.withdraw(3000);
      System.out.println("new amount after withdrawal: " + ca.getAmount());
   }
}

The main() method in Listing 5 first demonstrates SavingsAccount, then CheckingAccount. Assuming Account.java, SavingsAccount.java, CheckingAccount.java, and AccountDemo.java source files are in the same directory, execute either of the following commands to compile all of these source files:


javac AccountDemo.java
javac *.java

Execute the following command to run the application:

java AccountDemo

You should observe the following output:


account name: savings
initial amount: 10000
new amount after deposit: 15000
account name: checking
initial amount: 20000
new amount after deposit: 26000
new amount after withdrawal: 23000

Method overriding

A subclass can override (replace) an inherited method so that the subclass's version of the method is called instead. An overriding method must specify the same name, parameter list, and return type as the method being overridden. To demonstrate, I've declared a print() method in the Vehicle class below.

Listing 6. Declaring a print() method to be overridden


class Vehicle
{
   private String make;
   private String model;
   private int year;

   Vehicle(String make, String model, int year)
   {
      this.make = make;
      this.model = model;
      this.year = year;
   }

   String getMake()
   {
      return make;
   }

   String getModel()
   {
      return model;
   }

   int getYear()
   {
      return year;
   }

   void print()
   {
      System.out.println("Make: " + make + ", Model: " + model + ", Year: "
+
                         year);
   }
}

Next, I override print() in the Truck class.

Listing 7. Overriding print() in a Truck subclass


public class Truck extends Vehicle
{
   private double tonnage;

   Truck(String make, String model, int year, double tonnage)
   {
      super(make, model, year);
      this.tonnage = tonnage;
   }

   double getTonnage()
   {
      return tonnage;
   }

   void print()
   {
      super.print();
      System.out.println("Tonnage: " + tonnage);
   }
}

Truck's print() method has the same name, return type, and parameter list as Vehicle's print() method. Note, too, that Truck's print() method first calls Vehicle's print() method by prefixing super. to the method name. It's often a good idea to execute the superclass logic first and then execute the subclass logic.

To complete this example, I've excerpted a VehicleDemo class's main() method:


Truck truck = new Truck("Ford", "F150", 2008, 0.5);
System.out.println("Make = " + truck.getMake());
System.out.println("Model = " + truck.getModel());
System.out.println("Year = " + truck.getYear());
System.out.println("Tonnage = " + truck.getTonnage());
truck.print();

The final line, truck.print();, calls truck's print() method. Note that Truck's print() first calls Vehicle's print() to output the truck's make, model, and year; then it outputs the truck's tonnage. This portion of the output is shown below:


Make: Ford, Model: F150, Year: 2008
Tonnage: 0.5

Method overloading instead of overriding

Suppose you replaced the print() method in Listing 7 with the one below:


void print(String owner)
{
   System.out.print("Owner: " + owner);
   super.print();
}

The modified Truck class now has two print() methods: the preceding explicitly-declared method and the method inherited from Vehicle. The void print(String owner) method doesn't override Vehicle's print() method. Instead, it overloads it.

You can detect an attempt to overload instead of override a method at compile time by prefixing a subclass's method header with the @Override annotation:


@Override
void print(String owner)
{
   System.out.print("Owner: " + owner);
   super.print();
}

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