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Icons of Progress


The Pioneering Programming Language

The New York Times noted, “Fortran changed the terms of communication between humans and computers.” A practically secret code that guarded computer programming became, with Fortran, simple English-language shorthand—“DO” and “GO TO,” for example—along with common algebraic commands that enhanced efficiency while reducing the tedious chore of debugging. This single development made computer programming accessible to the learned general public—bringing programming into the mainstream. Below are some cultural impacts of Fortran.


The January 5, 1957, The New Yorker published an article, “Chess to Come,” about advertisements IBM placed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Scientific American for recruiting “research programmers for digital computers” for an “expanding research effort in the development and automatic translation of a multi-computer language.” The effort in question was Fortran. The ad said, “Those who enjoy playing chess or solving puzzles will find this work absorbing.” It was enough to make Mark Halpern drop his pursuit of a PhD in English and go to work at IBM. “What would have become of me [if not for reading the story] is a subject I still can’t think about without shuddering.”

Facebook fans of Fortran

Users of the popular social networking site Facebook have established “fan pages” around a common Fortran interest. Memberships in the Fortran groups currently number in the hundreds.

Fortran in Popular Music

In 1982, the band 10,000 Maniacs released a song titled “Planned Obsolescence” that includes the repeated line: “Science [is] truth for life, in Fortran tongue the answer.” And independent nerdcore hip hop band, Death*Star, titled their first EP Soldiers of FORTRAN.


Originally popularized as a fictitious malt liquor in Futurama: The Game, “Olde FORTRAN” has taken on a life of its own in the computer programming community. You can find the tongue-in-cheek reference on buttons, stickers, t-shirts, mugs and even pet apparel.