In this week’s Tech Time Warp, we’re going back to programming in the 50’s. Introduced in 1959, the programming language COBOL—common, business-oriented language—is still heavily in use today, with an estimated 200 billion lines of code relied upon by government and commercial enterprises. COBOL had multiple advantages from the outset: Not only could it be used on different manufacturers’ machines, but also it was written in plain English and could run essential accounting tasks, such as payroll and inventory control.
Among the COBOL programmers on a U.S. Department of Defense committee was Jean Sammet, creater of the FORMAC (formula manipulation compiler) language for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic equations. Interestingly enough, Sammet’s first impression of computers was not positive: The mathematician recalled in an interview that she initially found them to be an “obscene piece of hardware.” But once she used a computer, Sammet did an about-face—and dedicated the rest of her remarkable career to putting “every person in communication with the computer.”
Born March 23, 1928, Sammet attended Mount Holyoke College to study math after being shut out of Bronx Science High School because she was female. She applied for a job as an actuary because it was one of the few jobs in the “ladies” want ads that wasn’t housekeeper or nurse. Her career included time at Sperry Gyroscope Company, Sylvania Electric Products, and ultimately IBM. In 1969, she wrote the classic programming textbook Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals. She also served as the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery.
In the final years of her life, Sammet lived in a Silver Spring, Maryland, retirement community, where she served as president of the Computer Club. Sammet passed away May 21, 2017.
Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock
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