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Tech Time Warp

In this edition of Tech Time Warp, we see how technology moves quickly. Each new iPhone renders the previous generation obsolete, with the earliest models now firmly in the quaint antique category. That’s why it’s so remarkable that COBOL, a business programming language that got its start on May 28, 1959, is—for better or worse—still in so much use today.

On that May day, a group of computer scientists drawn from the business world and the Department of Defense gathered to form the Committee on Data Systems Languages or CODASYL. Among them was the legendary Admiral Grace Hopper. The goal of CODASYL was to develop a “COmmon Business-Oriented Language” that could run on many types of machines and was easy for non-programmers to understand because it was written in basic English. By 1960, CODASYL had developed COBOL and conducted a test in which the program successfully ran on an RCA computer and a Remington Rand Univac. Achieving this goal in the year following the committee’s formation might seem like no big deal, but CODASYL had its detractors. One committee member (Howard Bromberg) even had a COBOL tombstone made as a joke; that artifact is now in the collection of the Computer History Museum.

COBOL’s legacy

The project was a success, with widespread adoption of COBOL, particularly in government and finance. Many federal agencies still run on COBOL, prompting the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to warn in May 2023 that it was past time for these agencies to find another solution. While COBOL has been an incredible programming language, it’s now a security risk, and it’s difficult to find programmers versed in it—which became apparent in the spring of 2020 when state governments across the country needed COBOL programmers to handle the extreme influx of COVID-related unemployment claims. All in all, it’s incredible that a programming language could have such staying power.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Tech Time Warp? Check out others here.

Photo: pixelparticle / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

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

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