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Icons of Progress


The Pioneering Programming Language

Prior to Fortran, computers did not have software; using the machines involved manually typing commands in binary machine, or assembly, language. Fortran is considered the first “user-centered” software design due to its reduction of mechanistic instructions into simple English commands with algebraic formulas. Its language focused more on the problem the person using the computer wanted to solve than on the machine’s operations. A line of Fortran code could translate into many machine instructions, in binary.

Fortran was focused on program efficiency with language design as a secondary consideration. Both, however, proved to be revolutionary. Hovering over the effort was the goal of designing a language so designers and engineers could write their own programs, using simple words such as GO, TO and DO—proposed by Harlan Herrick. The language of Fortran is derived from algebraic formulas used by scientists and engineers who were the users of the emerging computer technology.

In an astonishing feat, Fortran reduced 1000 machine computer instructions to 47 automated statements. Its optimization was far ahead of its time—by approximately 10 years—according to Norm Hardy, one of Fortran’s original users at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Since its release in 1957, Fortran has been periodically updated to meet developments in language and processor design. Fortran II, III, IV, 66, 77, 90, 2003, and the latest 2008 iteration approved in September 2010 have focused primarily on scientific computing, striving to maintain compatibility with earlier versions of the language.

Preliminary Report, November 10, 1954

Read John Backus’s preliminary report on the progress of what was then referred to as the “Programming Research Group” of the Applied Science Division.

Developing the Fortran compiler, according to John Backus

The core of Fortran was its compiler, which brought together individual and iterative tasks that were each coded separately, into an automated, compiled process that was a triumph in the logic and efficiency of information processing and problem solving. What previously took weeks to process—if one had the necessary specialized computer language skills—was reduced to moments in Fortran.