History Software Engineering

COBOL Programming Language – 1960 AD

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COBOL Computer Language

Mary K. Hawes (dates unavailable), Grace Hopper (1906–1992)

In 1959, the US Department of Defense (DOD) operated 225 computers and had another 175 on order. These computers were rapidly replacing paper filing systems, utilizing dozens of different programming languages to track people, supplies, and money. Realizing that the government could not afford the skyrocketing cost of software development, the DOD funded Mary K. Hawes, a computer scientist from the Burroughs Corporation, to create the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) to design a Common Business Language (CBL). The plan was to create a new language that would be easier to use, allowing computers to be programmed with English-like sentences.

Numerous committees were created to design the language, and many manufacturers announced their intention to support it. The plan was to have a short-range committee come up with an interim, stopgap measure, and then for others to refine the language at a more careful, leisurely pace. But the task was huge, and the project soon got bogged down in competing designs.

Meanwhile, members of the short-range committee took FLOW-MATIC, a computer language developed within the DOD by computer scientist Grace Hopper, made a few modifications, and distributed it as the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). Calling themselves alternately the Short-Range Committee and the PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) Committee, the team put together a language specification between August and December 1959; a year later, on December 7, 1960, a COBOL program could run on the RCA 501 computer and on a Remington Rand UNIVAC computer.

COBOL soon came to dominate the world of business computing. And while it has gone through many revisions, COBOL remains in use today, driving the back-office systems of many banks and payroll systems.

COBOL is also one of the first examples of free software. At a time when users rented their computers and corporations jealously guarded their intellectual property rights, the designers and users of COBOL insisted it should be available to all.

SEE ALSO FORTRAN (1957), BASIC Computer Language (1964), C Programming Language (1972)

Grace Hopper explains the operation of the COBOL compiler.

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