History of languages: disco days

By the early 1970s, the discussion on structured programming, and indeed the utility of goto was in full swing. With the growing complexity of programs, it was no longer appropriate to create them in an ad hoc manner. The 1960s heralded great break-throughs in programming language design, the most notable being the transition from structureless code to structured code, modularization, recursion, and efficient control structures.

In 1972, Niklaus Wirth produced the language Pascal, and named in honor of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal evolved from the likes of Algol, and was grounded in simplicity, making it an excellent teaching language. Wirth later went on to develop Modula-2 (1978) and Oberon, both based on Pascal. An outlier to this trend was BASIC. BASIC was born in 1964, but became to prominence in the late 1970s, largely due to the rise of the personal computer. The personal computer is what drove one side of the programming language evolution in the 1970s, with both Pascal and BASIC vying for dominance. This was likely jarring for the established languages (Cobol, Fortran, even Algol). Edsger Dijkstra’s is famously quoted as saying:

It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.”

The Pascal/BASIC clashes would almost morph into a form of holy war. The other side of the programming language development was spurned by system programming. In 1972 Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie introduced C, in part to help in the evolution of the Unix OS. They probably didn’t quite fathom the effect C would have on the design of future programming languages. C allowed for programming at a lower level than was possible with many programming languages, in many respects C was a structured assembly language.

Some languages, such as Fortran and Cobol evolved – Fortran into F77, Cobol into Cobol74. For others, it was a less than happy time. Algol all but disappeared during this decade, displaced by Pascal. But with the 1980s, the dawn of the personal computer ushered in one new player (OO), and an older one, BASIC, whose time had just begun.


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