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The latest revision of @INCITS/@isostandards COBOL comes out this year

The goals of COBOL sound normal today:

- Portable
- Freely available
- Designed by the community

In 1959 it was radical & unprecedented

It was also conceived of & led by women

This is the story of COBOL
The year is 1959

Companies & governments have a problem

When they buy a computer from a new vendor, they must port their software to a new language, which is expensive

The number of these vendor languages is rapidly growing
Mary Hawes, programmer at Burroughs Corp, called for the creation of a new language - one that ran on different brands of computers

1959-05-08, @Penn: Grace Hopper organizes a meeting of users and manufacturers of computers to plan development of such a language
Grace Hopper wanted to avoid the "Tower of Babel" that would be caused by a growing number of similar languages such as FLOW-MATIC, COMTRAN, & AIMACO

But would competing manufacturers set aside differences and invest in a common language?
"We couldn't work together and agree on anything because we were breaking antitrust laws. The only way we could all work together and not throw our companies into fits was under the jurisdiction of a university or the government"
- Grace Hopper
Hopper, a retired US Navy Officer, reached out to the US Navy first

She was told they would be unable to support such an "ambitious endeavor"

But Charles Phillips at US Department of Defense was willing to bet on it
1959-05-28: 40 people from 7 gov't agencies, 11 user orgs, and 10 vendors gather at the Pentagon to begin work on a common business language (CBL)

"I don't think ever before or since have I seen in 1 room so much power to commit men and monies as I saw that day"
- Grace Hopper
They were known as the Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL)

3 teams were formed; most important was the Short-Range Committee (SRC)

3 of the 9 initial members were:

Mary Hawes, data descriptions chair

Jean Sammet, procedural statements chair

Betty Holberton, editor
The SRC was tasked with analyzing existing languages and developing an initial specification for an "interim language"

The US Department of Defense gave them 3 months

Betty Holberton, an experienced language designer & compiler engineer, knew the deadline was nearly impossible
Betty also knew that there was no such thing as an "interim language"; developing languages was too expensive

"In no way was this language going to be an interim solution. This language was it!"

60 years of later, I think we can say she was right
Given time constraints they couldn't start from scratch

They looked to prior art

FLOW-MATIC, from Hopper's team, which had been deployed & used

AIMACO was basically the Air Force's version of FLOW-MATIC

COMTRAN "existed at that time only as a manual produced by IBM"
So... they went in the direction of the one with field experience

Much of COBOL's DNA was taken from FLOW-MATIC

FLOW-MATIC's more memorable attributes include English words for commands & the separation of data descriptions & instructions
Efforts to move from English words (FLOW-MATIC) to algebraic expressions (COMTRAN) were not received

Hopper wrote a "heated memorandum". She wanted a problem- & user-oriented language designed for business data-processing not mathematicians

The FLOW-MATIC syntax stayed
1959-09-04: 3 months after the SRC was formed, an initial spec is delivered to Washington

By this time, the unrelenting efforts of Jean Sammet and the rest of the SRC had earned a nickname within the US Department of Defense:

"The P.D.Q. (Pretty Damn Quick) Group"
The CODASYL executive committee thought the initial draft was pretty rough

They gave the SRC until December to clean it up

They also gave it a name: Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL)
By the time, interest was growing, which brought controversy and drama to CODASYL

In the fall of 1959, the Intermediate Range Committee (one of the other two teams), received copies of the FACT language

They were so impressed they passed a resolution to base COBOL on it
This was a huge blow to the SRC who were developing FLOW-MATIC based COBOL

Jean Sammet admitted in some ways FACT was technically superior

But, FACT had some problems:

- It wasn't designed to portable
- There was no implementation
- It was not designed by consensus
In the end, the IRC's decision was overturned

In October, the SRC, which had grown quite large and had lost agility, appointed a group of six people to finish the spec

This group included Jean Sammet and Gertrude Tierney
There was other drama

Howard Bromberg, from RCA & an SRC member, grew so frustrated that he sent a tombstone with "COBOL" on it to Philips

"Obviously someone did not wish COBOL well & was kindly providing the chair with a marker for the grave"
- Charles Philips, CODASYL chair
1960-01-07: The CODASYL executive committee accepts the COBOL draft from the SRC for publication

A final editing committee consisting of Betty Holberton and Joseph Wegstein was appointed; Betty did all of the work

This was COBOL 60: the first portable language
But would it work? And would the industry adopt it?

At 1st, only RCA and Remington-Rand UNIVAC implemented COBOL

1960-08-17: First COBOL program runs on an RCA 501

1960-12-06/7: The same COBOL program runs on an RCA and a UNIVAC, demonstrating that portability worked!
Vendors, even those like IBM who were initially hesitant, came around to COBOL

The "interim language" spread like wildfire, despite the warnings of its critics

It became one of the most widely used languages
Even before the first COBOL program ran, work began on COBOL 61, the next revision

Many more followed

1962: CODASYL starts a joint effort with @ansidotorg and @isostandards to create a COBOL International Standard
1968: @isostandards IS 1989:1978, the International Standard for COBOL, is published

It was the first ISO programming language standard

It was revised in:


I had the good fortune to vote in favor of COBOL 2020 for @nvidia
COBOL was born before the open source era, but it embodied the ideals of open source
Anyone could propose changes to COBOL - just mail your proposal to Pennsylvania

You could sign up for notifications about the latest COBOL developments by mailing a form to the US government
COBOL, the 1st portable language, was developed by collaboration of users & vendors in a few months in 1959, led by a group of female engineers

It was meant as an interim solution. It became one of most popular languages

60 years later, it still powers critical infrastructure

Recollections on the Early Days of COBOL and CODASYL (IEEE)…
CODASYL COBOL Journal of Development 1986 (US National Bureau of Standards)…
Pioneering Women in Computer Science (ACM, Denise Gürer)…
Proposing COBOL (National Museum of American History)…
First Draft of the Programming Language COBOL (National Museum of American History)…
Brief Summary of an Early History of COBOL (IEEE, Jean Sammet)…
Early History of COBOL (Jean Sammet)…
The Real Creators of COBOL (Jean Sammet)…
Jean Sammet Memoriam (NY Times, Steve Lohr, Ben Shneiderman)…
Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (Kurt Beyer)
The Story of the COBOL Tombstone (Howard Bromberg)…
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