Fortran Programming Language

The First Successful High Level Programming Language

Fortran - Software Makes a Computer Ticks
Fortran - Software Makes a Computer Ticks. John Foxx/Getty Images

"I really didn't know what the hell I wanted to do with my life... I said no, I couldn't. I looked sloppy and disheveled. But she insisted and so I did. I took a test and did OK." - John Backus on his experience interviewing for IBM.

What was Fortran or Speedcoding?

FORTRAN or formula translation was the first high-level programming language (software) invented by John Backus for IBM in 1954, and released commercially in 1957.

Fortran is still used today for programming scientific and mathematical applications. Fortran began as a digital code interpreter for the IBM 701 and was originally named Speedcoding. John Backus wanted a programming language that was closer in appearance to human language, which is the definition of a high-level language, other high language programs include Ada, Algol, BASIC, COBOL, C, C++, LISP, Pascal, and Prolog.

Generations of Codes

  1. The first generation of codes used to program the functions of a computer was called machine language or machine code. Machine code is the language a computer really understands on a machine level, being a sequence of 0s and 1s that the computer's controls interpret as instructions electrically.
  2. The second generation of code was called assembly language. Assembly language turns the sequences of 0s and 1s into human words like 'add'. Assembly language is always translated back into machine code by programs called assemblers.
  1. The third generation of code was called high-level language or HLL, which has human sounding words and syntax (like words in a sentence). In order for the computer to understand any HLL, a compiler translates the high-level language into either assembly language or machine code. All programming languages need to be eventually translated into machine code for a computer to use the instructions they contain.

    John Backus & IBM

    John Backus headed the IBM team of researchers, at the Watson Scientific Laboratory, that invented Fortran. On the IBM team were the notable names of scientists like; Sheldon F. Best, Harlan Herrick (Harlan Herrick ran the first successful Fortran program), Peter Sheridan, Roy Nutt, Robert Nelson, Irving Ziller, Richard Goldberg, Lois Haibt and David Sayre.

    The IBM team didn't invent HLL or the idea of compiling programming language into machine code, but Fortran was the first successful HLL and the Fortran I compiler holds the record for translating code for over 20 years. The first computer to run the first compiler was the IBM 704, which John Backus helped design.

    Fortran Today

    Fortran is now over forty years old and remains the top language in scientific and industrial programming, of course, it has constantly been updated.

    The invention of Fortran began a $24 million dollar computer software industry and began the development of other high-level programming languages.

    Fortran has been used for programming video games, air traffic control systems, payroll calculations, numerous scientific and military applications and parallel computer research.

    John Backus won the 1993 National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize, the highest national prize awarded in engineering, for the invention of Fortran.

    A sample chapter from GoTo, a book by Steve Lohr on the history of software and software programmers, that covers the history of Fortran.