Little Bits of History

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Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 15, 2014
FORTRAN statement punch card

FORTRAN statement punch card

October 15, 1956: The FORTRAN Automatic Coding System for the IBM 704 programmer’s reference manual is released. The name comes from FORmula TRANSlating system and it is a general-purpose imperative programming language which is especially useful for numeric computation and scientific computing. It was developed by IBM for use with scientific and engineering applications and it dominated the area of programming from the early days. It has been in continuous use since its release and today finds use in applications using massive numerical data such as weather prediction, element analysis, and computations areas of fluid dynamics, physics, and chemistry.

It is the language used for programs which benchmark and rank the world’s fastest supercomputers. It was based on previous computer programming languages: ALGOL 58, BASIC, C, PL/I, PACT I, MUMPS, and Ratfor. As each new version evolved, it was given a higher number appended to the name. FORTRAN is written in all caps up until FORTRAN 77 but the name eventually became Fortran without being all caps, which happened officially with Fortran 90. Newer versions added extensions but usually provided for legacy use of older versions of the code.

In late 1953, John Backus submitted a proposal to IBM to develop and more practical alternative to assembly language for programming the IBM 704 mainframe, a room size behemoth of a computer. Backus put together a team of programmers: Richard Goldberg, Sheldon Best, Harlan Herrick, Peter Sheridan, Roy Nutt, Robert Nelson, Irving Ziller, Lois Haibt, and David Sayre. The team worked on a method which would include easier entry of equations into a computer, something that was still done using punch cards. The first draft specification for The IBM Mathematical Formal Translating System was completed in mid-1954. The first FORTRAN compiler was delivered in April 1957. Customers were reluctant to use the new language because they didn’t believe it would be better than hand-coded assembly language.

It was better. It reduced the number of programming statements necessary to operate a machine by a factor of 20. It quickly gained acceptance. Because the language was being used by many scientists, compiler writers were urged on to create compilers able to generate faster and more efficient coding. The initial release of FORTRAN contained 32 statements (computer orders). Programs were entered on a keypunch keyboard onto 80 column punched cards, one line per card. The cards were fed into a card reader to be compiled. These did not usually deal with special characters and so special cards were needed. After many new versions, the language began being called Fortran with the date of revision. The Fortran in use today is Fortran 2008 with the next revision due to come out in 2015.

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.- John Backus in a 1979 interview

Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the universe trying to build bigger and better idiots. So far, the universe is winning. – Rick Cook

Don’t worry if it doesn’t work right. If everything did, you’d be out of a job. – Mosher’s Law of Software Engineering

FORTRAN is not a flower but a weed — it is hardy, occasionally blooms, and grows in every computer. – Alan J. Perlis

The evolution of languages: FORTRAN is a non-typed language. C is a weakly typed language. Ada is a strongly typed language. C++ is a strongly hyped language. – Ron Sercely

Also on this day: Rostov Ripper – In 1992, Andrei Chikatilo, of Russia, was found guilty of 52 murders.
Going Postal – In 1888, a letter was received, purportedly from Jack the Ripper.
You Got Some ‘Splainin To Do – In 1951, I Love Lucy premiered.
Chance Chants – In 1764, Edward Gibbon was inspired to write his work on the fall of Rome.

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