History of languages – it starts with Fortran

In the mid-1950’s the first key programming language appeared in the guise of Fortran. Fortran was developed in 1954-57 by John W. Backus and his team at IBM. Its name is a portmanteau of Formula Translator/Translation. This language was widely used by scientists to write programs to solve numerically intensive problems. It is a language that has persisted for over 50 years, with its latest incarnation appearing in 2008 (Fortran 2008). In today’s terms the original Fortran would be considered limiting as it only included IF, DO, and GOTO statements, but at the time, these structures were an immense breakthrough. The basic datatypes in use today were created in Fortran, these included logical variables (TRUE or FALSE), integer, real, and double-precision numbers. One of Fortrans constraints was its inability to deal with I/O. Fortran was quickly adopted by scientists for solving numerically demanding problems. Fortran provided the basic ideas for the evolution of modern languages (not that Fortran 2008 isn’t modern mind you!).

In the years that followed the introduction of Fortran, programming languages proliferated. This was understandable given that after some experience with a new language, deficiencies would be found that required a “new” language to correct them. Sometimes it was also easier to get additional capabilities by designing a new language rather than modifying an existing one. By 1971 there were approximately 148 different programming languages [1].

Fortran was designed by John W. Backus in 1953 at IBM, as an alternative to using assembly language on the IBM 704 mainframe. The first Fortran compiler appeared in April 1957. Why was Fortran created? In an interview with Backus in 1979, he said: “Much of my work has come from being lazy. I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

Whilst the original language had no recursion, was programmed for punch cards, written in uppercase, and made extensive use of gotos, newer renditions have incorporated many programming language features added throughout the past sixty years.

[1] Sammet, J.E., “Programming Languages: History and Future”, Communications of the ACM, 1972, Vol.15, No.7, pp.601-610.


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