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ALGOL 60 at 60: The Greatest Computer Language You've Never Used and Grandaddy of the Programming Family Tree


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An Elliott 803 at Loughborough Grammar School in 1976.

2020 marks 60 years since ALGOL 60 laid the groundwork for a multitude of computer languages.

Credit: Peter Onion/Loughborough Schools Foundation

2020 marks 60 years since ALGOL 60 laid the groundwork for a multitude of computer languages.

The Register spoke to The National Museum of Computing's Peter Onion and Andrew Herbert to learn a bit more about the good old days of punch tapes.

ALGOL 60 was the successor to ALGOL 58, which debuted in 1958. ALGOL 58 had introduced the concept of code blocks (replete with begin and end delimiting pairs), but ALGOL 60 took these starting points of structured programming and ran with them, giving rise to familiar faces such as Pascal and C, as well as the likes of B and Simula.

"In the 1950s most code was originally written in machine code or assembly code," said Herbert, former director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, with every computer having its own particular twist on things. A first generation of languages, called "Autocode", existed for coding problems like equations which could then be translated into machine code, but lacked the bells and whistles of today. Worse, some had features that others lacked, making hopping between systems tricky.

"There was an Autocode for the [Elliott] 803," said Onion, "but it only supported expressions like A + B = C, so if you've got a complex equation, you have to break it down into individual single binary operations. So there was still a lot of hard work to be done by the programmer."

 

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