On this day in 1956, programming changed for good [Remember FORTRAN?]

It isn’t very often we hear of Fortran these days. But today is important. It would be grave injustice not to write about the first widely used high level language on a day when it was first shared with the programming community, back in 1956. For the first time, programming became more about the output than about the way it was written.

Fortran is just an ancient language for many of us who were taught C and C++ through textbooks that casually referred to the original high level language in a section labeled “history of programming languages.” Seldom does anyone ask at a job interview if you know Fortran or not. To be honest, I’ve never used it. Nonetheless,  a sense of history can do no harm. As computer scientist Donald Ervin Knuth puts it

The history of a subject helps us not only to understand how the important ideas were born but also to appreciate the amount of progress that has been made. The history of programming languages is a striking example, because basic concepts that we now regard as self-evident were by no means obvious a priori; many years of hard work by brilliant and dedicated people were necessary before these basic principles were learned.

The beginning

Grace Murray Hopper and John Backus worked on early computer languages that could talk to computers and relay information back to humans on a common ground closer the to human language. Backus and his team created the Fortran compiler which could translate high level formulae into a language computers could understand.

Courtesy: www.fortran.bcs.org

Couple of years years after the first release, the second version of the language introduced subroutines. That was revolutionary. These routines simplified coding and made reusable pieces of software possible. In a New York Times article referenced in the book “Making The World Work Better,” Ken Thompson who developed Unix at Bell Labs in 1969 says that 95 % of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran.

Hopper later created COBOL, which was much more verbose. A large part of the $ 70 bn Indian IT industry is still alive because of COBOL. But thats a story for later. John Backus, who died in 2007 at the age of 82, has made a deep impact on computing ever since he began his journey as a 25 year old grad student hired by IBM in the 50s.


(Video courtesy)

Fortran, the language which has evolved a fair bit over time, is still widely used by scientists and engineers. Its mathematical prowess makes it appealing to the scientific community.

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