Home history Fortran Fortran
The world’s first programming language standard opened the door to modern computing
The 25th Anniversary of Fortran exhibit at the 1982 National Computer Conference.

In the early 1950s, computer programming was the exclusive domain of a small group of specialists who wrote code in machine language, a complex and cumbersome set of instructions. Programming was for experts only — outsiders need not apply. Then came Fortran.

From its creation in 1954 and its commercial release in 1957 as the progenitor of software, Fortran (short for formula translation) became the first computer language standard. It helped open the door to modern computing and ranks as one of the most influential software products in history. Fortran liberated computers from the exclusive realm of programmers and opened them to nearly everybody else. And it’s still in use decades after its release.

Fortran democratized computer programming by providing scientists, mathematicians and engineers the ability to input their problems directly into the computer without relying on a programmer to translate their needs into machine code. What was formerly a laborious task of manually keying as many as a thousand program instructions for a given problem could now be translated, automated and reduced to only 47 in Fortran.

Fortran instigated the process of abstracting software from the hardware on which it ran. Previous machine language programs had to be written for a specific computer, while a Fortran program could run on any system with a Fortran compiler.

Born of necessity
Streamlining the cost and labor of coding

Fortran was born of necessity in the early 1950s, when computer programs were hand-coded. Programmers would laboriously write out rows of zeros and ones in precise order. John Backus, Fortran’s primary author, described the process as “hand-to-hand combat with the machine,” with the machine often winning. The cost of programmers was usually at least as great as the cost of the computers, and programmers spent up to half their time debugging.

Backus thought it should be possible to create a programming language that captured the human intent of a program and recast it in a way that a computer could process, expressed in something resembling mathematical notation. In 1953, he was given a budget to hire a small team to test the feasibility of that notion. Recruitment ads were placed in national publications, noting, “Those who enjoy playing chess or solving puzzles will find this work absorbing.”

An eclectic development team
A chess wizard, a crystallographer and a cryptographer

The eclectic team included a chess wizard, a crystallographer, a cryptographer, and a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lois Haibt, who joined the project straight out of the mathematics program at Vassar College and was the only woman on the team, recalled, “No one was worried about seeming stupid or possessive of his or her code. We were all just learning together.”

Together they tackled two fundamental problems: how to create a language that made programming faster, cheaper and accessible to a wider range of users, and how to structure the underlying code to make all of that possible. They often worked at night because it was the only way they could get time on the IBM 704 — the first mass-produced computer to use high-speed magnetic core memory — to test and debug code. The hours were long but the atmosphere was informal, with snowball fights breaking up long days of work in the winter. “We thought it was a good project, and then everyone told us it couldn’t be done,” Backus said as he reflected on the undertaking. “There was a sense that we really wanted to show them.”

What was supposed to be a six-month operation wound up taking three years of commitment. In 1957, the IBM Mathematical Formula Translating System, or Fortran, debuted. Soon after, IBM made the first Fortran compiler available to users of the IBM 704.

No one was worried about seeming stupid or possessive of his or her code. We were all just learning together. Lois Haibt Fortran team member
Pioneers of Fortran David Sayre Harlan Herrick John Backus Lois Haibt Robert Nelson Roy Nutt Sheldon Best Richard Goldberg Peter Sheridan
Overcoming skepticism
Fortran makes its mark in space travel, weather forecasting and beyond

Fortran confounded skeptics who insisted that a program compiled from a high-level language could never be as efficient as one that was handcrafted directly using numerical codes. Backus’s team had implemented the first optimizing compiler, which not only translated Fortran’s programs into the IBM 704’s numerical codes but produced codes that ran nearly as fast as anything that could be crafted by hand.

Fortran greatly increased programmer productivity and significantly lowered costs. It also opened programming beyond a small group of experts. Increasingly, it became the province of anyone willing to learn a basic language. These factors, combined with its capacity to process complex numerical problems, spurred the deployment of Fortran across industries. It quickly proved its utility in a wide variety of tasks and projects, from calculating trajectories of airborne missiles and NASA flight patterns to computing complex economic and statistical models.

Because other computer vendors made it available to run on their machines using IBM’s standard, Fortran crossed operating platforms and established its durability. By the mid-1960s, Fortran had become the first national computing standard and was used in most major data centers in the United States and parts of Europe. Fortran is still in use today — in Doppler radar weather forecasts and atmospheric and oceanic studies, as well as in simulating nanoparticles, genomes, DNA and atomic structures. Some farmers even use Fortran to help breed the most cost-effective chickens based on genetic selection.

From the genome lab to the chicken coop, Fortran has proven its worth as a democratizing programming language.

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