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Fortran debuts as alternative to machine language

Fortran “may well be the most influential software product in history,” according to IBM.

When I was a senior at the University of Georgia, I decided to take a computer programming class because I was headed to Virginia Tech to study agricultural economics for my master of science degree.

About the second week of the quarter, I corralled the professor after class: “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this [computer programming] before now?!?” The language: Fortran (The IBM Mathematical Formula Translating System).

A Fortran program ran for the first time on 20 September 1954. However, it would be April 1957 before the IBM team delivered “the first compiler for general-purpose, imperative programming language.”

It quickly became the dominant language for engineering and scientific applications. Indeed, Fortran was the trusted language for programs that benchmarked and ranked the world’s fastest supercomputers for decades.

Before 1954, almost all computer programming was written in either machine language or assembly language. IBM engineer John Backus developed Fortran as an alternative, and it “changed how people interacted with computers and paved the way for modern software.” When released in 1957, it contained more than 25,000 lines of machine language.

One reason for its adoption: Fortran reduced the number of hand-coded assembly programming statements needed to operate a computer by a factor of 20.

It also “made code comprehensible to people with expertise in fields other than computing.” IBM points out that “someone who knew high school algebra but nothing about computers could probably figure out Fortran statements.” I can attest to that statement.

In 1977, ACM named Backus the recipient of its Turing Award, “for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems.”

Eventually every IBM 704 sold included the FORTRAN program and its accompanying manual. For several more years, Backus and his team continued to refine the FORTRAN program—which we would today call a compiler—until it finally reached a reasonable degree of stability and correctness.

IBM explains the power (efficiency) of compilation: “A programmer using Fortran writes only 5 percent of all instructions, and the program generates (compiles) the remaining 95 percent for the computer.”

Backus provided additional context for Fortran’s development and adoption in a 1998 article for IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, economics:

Another factor which influenced the development of FORTRAN was the economics of programming in 1954. The cost of programmers associated with a computer center was usually at least as great as the cost of the computer itself. (This fact follows from the average salary-plus-overhead and number of programmers at each center and from the computer rental figures.) In addition, from one quarter to one half of the computer’s time was spent in debugging. Thus programming and debugging accounted for as much as three quarters of the cost of operating a computer; and obviously, as computers got cheaper, this situation would get worse.

In 1979, Backus told an interviewer for Think, the IBM employee magazine, “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.”

Backus died in 2007 at age 82.


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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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