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COBOL Turns 60: Why It Will Outlive Us All


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From left, programmers Donald Cropper, K.C. Krishnan, and Grace Hopper at the console of Univac I. Not shown: Norman Rothberg.

Credit for coming up with the basic idea for the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) goes to Mary Hawes, a Burroughs Corporation programmer who saw a need for a computer language.

Credit: IEEE History Center

I cut my programming teeth on IBM 360 Assembler. This shouldn't be anyone's first language. In computing's early years, the only languages were machine and assembler. In those days, computing science really was "science." Clearly, there needed to be an easier language for programming those hulking early mainframes. That language, named in September 1959, became Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL).

The credit for coming up with the basic idea goes not to Grace Hopper, although she contributed to the language and promoted it, but to Mary Hawes. She was a Burroughs Corporation programmer who saw a need for a computer language. In March 1959, Hawes proposed that a new computer language be created. It would have an English-like vocabulary that could be used across different computers to perform basic business tasks.

Hawes talked Hopper and others into creating a vendor-neutral interoperable computer language. Hopper suggested they approach the Department of Defense (DoD) for funding and as a potential customer for the unnamed language. 

Business IT experts agreed, and in May 1959, 41 computer users and manufacturers met at the Pentagon. There, they formed the Short Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL).

Drawing on earlier business computer languages such as Remington Rand UNIVAC's FLOW-MATIC, which was largely the work of Grace Hopper, and IBM's Commercial Translator, the committee established that COBOL-written programs should resemble ordinary English. 

But, even with the support of the DoD, IBM, and UNIVAC, COBOL's path forward wasn't clear. Honeywell proposed its own language, FACT, as the business programming language of the future. For a brief time, it appeared the earlier business developers would be FACT rather than COBOL programmers, but the hardware of the day couldn't support FACT. So, COBOL once more took the lead. 

By that September, COBOL's basic syntax was nailed down, and COBOL programs were running by the summer of 1960. In December 1960, COBOL programs proved to be truly interoperable by running on computers from two different vendors. COBOL was on its way to becoming the first truly commercial programming language.

 

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