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Although FORTRAN was not commercially released until 1957, the date September 20, 1954, is also significant in the history of the groundbreaking computer language. That’s when the first FORTRAN program successfully ran while in development at IBM. John Backus worked together with a group of men and women from diverse backgrounds, including a cryptographer and a chess whiz.

FORTRAN—a portmanteau of “Formula Translator”—is significant as the first computing language to combine English shorthand with algebraic equations, making it accessible to more people, including mathematicians and scientists. Previous programming was first-generation machine language (a string of 0s and 1s) or second-generation assembly language requiring knowledge of computer architecture. Backus famously said previous languages required “doing hand-to-hand combat with the machine.”

FORTRAN gets put to use quickly

Previous languages were also written for specific machines while the program ran on any machine with a FORTRAN compiler. The language also tracked where instructions were stored in a computer’s memory, removing the risk of human error from a laborious task. Industries quickly saw its potential, with banks using the language to assess risk and insurers using it to compile actuarial tables. FORTRAN was in use for more than 50 years after its introduction.

For his leadership of the FORTRAN group, Backus received the National Medal of Science in 1975, the Turing Award in 1977, and the Charles Stark Draper Prize—the top honor from the National Academy of Engineering—in 1993. He died in 2007.

Photo: metamorworks / Shutterstock


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Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

One Comment

  1. Wow, how time flies…

    My first programming language was PL/C on an IBM-360, but Fortran was the first language that I used for production work on PDP-11 (RSX). Up until I got my hands on a C compiler for PDP-11 RSX from DECUS, I used Fortran for everything from scientific to business applications.

    Yeah… those were the days.

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