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ArticlesA Brief History of Programming Languages

September 1995 / 20th Anniversary / A Brief History of Programming Languages

We've come a long way from computers programmed with wires and punch cards. Maybe not as far as some would like, though. Here are the innovations in programming.

ca. 1946

Konrad Zuse , a German engineer working alone while hiding out in the Bavarian Alps, develops Plankalkul. He applies the language to, among other things, chess.


Short Code , the first computer language actually used on an electronic computing device, appears. It is, however, a "hand-compiled" language.


Grace Hopper , working for Remington Rand, begins design work on the first widely known compiler, named A-0. When the language is released by Rand in 1957, it is called MATH-MATIC.


Alick E. Glennie , in his spare time at the University of Manchester, devises a programming system called AUTOCODE, a rudimentary compiler.


FORTRAN --mathematical FORmula TRANslating system--appears. Heading the team is John Backus, who goes on to contribute to the development of ALGOL and the well-known syntax-specification system known as BNF.


FORTRAN II appears, able to handle subroutines and links to assembly language. John McCarthy at M.I.T. begins work on LISP--LISt Processing.

The original specification for ALGOL appears. The specific ation does not describe how data will be input or output; that is left to the individual implementations.


LISP 1.5 appears. COBOL is created by the Conference on Data Systems and Languages (CODASYL).


ALGOL 60 , the first block-structured language, appears. This is the root of the family tree that will ultimately produce the likes of Pascal. ALGOL goes on to become the most popular language in Europe in the mid- to late-1960s.

Sometime in the early 1960s , Kenneth Iverson begins work on the language that will become APL--A Programming Language. It uses a specialized character set that, for proper use, requires APL-compatible I/O devices.


APL is documented in Iverson's book, A Pro gramming Language .

FORTRAN IV appears.

Work begins on the sure-fire winner of the "clever acronym" award, SNOBOL--StriNg-Oriented symBOlic Language. It will spawn other clever acronyms: FASBOL, a SNOBOL compiler (in 1971), and SPITBOL--SPeedy ImplemenTation of snoBOL--also in 1971.


ALGOL 60 is revised.

Work begins on PL/1.


APL\360 is implemented.

At Dartmouth University , professors John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz invent BASIC. The first implementation is a compiler. The first BASIC program runs at about 4:00 a.m. on May 1, 1964.

PL/1 is released.


SNOBOL3 appears.


FORTRAN 66 appears.

LISP 2 appears.

Work begins on LOGO at Bolt, Beranek, & Newman. The team is headed by Wally Fuerzeig and includes Seymour Papert. LOGO is best known for its "turtle graphics."


SNOBOL4 , a much-enhanced SNOBOL, appears.


ALGOL 68 , a monster compared to ALGOL 60, appears. Some members of the specifications committee--including C.A.R. Hoare and Niklaus Wirth--protest its approval. ALGOL 68 proves difficult to implement.

ALTRAN , a FORTRAN variant, appears.

COBOL is officially defined by ANSI.

Niklaus Wirth begins work on Pascal.


500 people attend an APL conference at IBM's headquarters in Armonk, New York. The demands for APL's distribution are so great that the event is later referred to as "The March on Armonk."


Sometime in the early 1970s , Charles Moore writes the first significant programs in his new language, Forth.

Work on Prolog begins about this time.

Also sometime in the early 1970s , work on Smalltalk begins at Xerox PARC, led by Alan Kay. Early versions will include Smalltalk-72, Smalltalk-74, and Smalltalk-76.

An implementation of Pascal appears on a CDC 6000-series computer.

Icon , a descendant of SNOBOL4, appears.


The manuscript for Konrad Zuse's Plankalkul (see 1946) is finally published.

Denni s Ritchie produces C. The definitive reference manual for it will not appear until 1974.

The first implementation of Prolog -- by Alain Colmerauer and Phillip Roussel -- appears.


Another ANSI specification for COBOL appears.


Tiny BASIC by Bob Albrecht and Dennis Allison (implementation by Dick Whipple and John Arnold) runs on a microcomputer in 2 KB of RAM. A 4-KB machine is sizable, which left 2 KB available for the program.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen write a version of BASIC that they sell to MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems) on a per-copy royalty basis. MITS is producing the Altair, an 8080-based microcomputer.

Scheme , a LISP dialect by G.L. Steele and G.J. Sussman, appears.

Pascal User Manual and Report , by Jensen and Wirth, is published. Still considered by many to be the definitive reference on Pascal.

B.W. Kerninghan describes RATFOR--RATional FORTRAN. It is a preprocessor that allows C-like control structures in FORTRAN. RATFOR is used in Kernighan and Plauger's "Software Tools," which appears in 1976.


Design System Language , considered to be a forerunner of PostScript, appears.


The ANSI standard for MUMPS -- Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System -- appears. Used originally to handle medical records, MUMPS recognizes only a string data-type. Later renamed M.

The design competition that will produce Ada begins. Honeywell Bull's team, led by Jean Ichbiah, will win the competition.

Kim Harris and others set up FIG, the FORTH interest group. They develop FIG-FORTH, which they sell for around $20.

Sometime in the late 1970s , Kenneth Bowles produces UCSD Pascal, which makes Pascal available on PDP-11 and Z80-based computers.

Niklaus Wirth begins work on Modula, forerunner of Modula-2 and successor to Pascal.


AWK -- a text-processing language named after the designers, Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan -- appears.

The ANSI standard for FORTRAN 77 appears.


Smalltalk-80 appears.

Modula-2 appears.

Franz LISP appears.

Bjarne Stroustrup develops a set of languages -- collectively referred to as "C With Classes" -- that serve as the breeding ground for C++.


Effort begins on a common dialect of LISP, referred to as Common LISP.

Japan begins the Fifth Generation Computer System project. The primary language is Prolog.


ISO Pascal appears.

PostScript appears.


Smalltalk-80: The Language and Its Implementation by Goldberg et al is published.

Ada appears . Its name comes from Lady Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of the English poet Byron. She has been called the first computer programmer because of her work on Charles Babbage's analytical engine. In 1983, the Department of Defense directs that all new "mission-critical" applications be written in Ada.

In late 1983 and early 1984, Microsoft and Digital Research both release the first C compilers for microcomputers.

In July , the first implementation of C++ appears. The name is coined by Rick Mascitti.

In November , Borland's Turbo Pascal hits the scene like a nuclear blast, thanks to an advertisement in BYTE magazine.


A reference manual for APL2 appears. APL2 is an extension of APL that permits nested arrays.


Forth controls the submersible sled that locates the wreck of the Titanic.

Vanilla SNOBOL4 for microcomputers is released.

Methods , a line-oriented Smalltalk for PCs, is introduced.


Smalltalk/V appears--the first widely av ailable version of Smalltalk for microcomputers.

Apple releases Object Pascal for the Mac.

Borland releases Turbo Prolog.

Charles Duff releases Actor, an object-oriented language for developing Microsoft Windows applications.

Eiffel , another object-oriented language, appears.

C++ appears.


Turbo Pascal version 4.0 is released.


The specification for CLOS -- Common LISP Object System -- is published.

Niklaus Wirth finishes Oberon, his follow-up to Modula-2.


The ANSI C specification is published.

C++ 2.0 arrives in the form of a draft reference manu al. The 2.0 version adds features such as multiple inheritance and pointers to members.


C++ 2.1 , detailed in Annotated C++ Reference Manual by B. Stroustrup et al, is published. This adds templates and exception-handling features.

FORTRAN 90 includes such new elements as case statements and derived types.

Kenneth Iverson and Roger Hui present J at the APL90 conference.


Visual Basic wins BYTE's Best of Show award at Spring COMDEX.


Dylan -- named for Dylan Thomas -- an object-oriented language resembling Scheme, is released by Apple.


ANSI releases the X3J4.1 technical report -- the first-draft proposal for (gulp) object-oriented COBOL. The standard is expected to be finalized in 1997.


Microsoft incorporates Visual Basic for Applications into Excel.


In February , ISO accepts the 1995 revision of the Ada language. Called Ada 95, it includes OOP features and support for real-time systems.


Anticipated release of first ANSI C++ standard .

Her HindSight and ForeSight Were Both 20/20

photo_link (36 Kbytes)

"It's better to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."--The Late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who led the effort to create COBOL

Up to the 20th Anniversary section contentsGo to previous article: 20 Worst AcronymsGo to next article: Notorious Bugs
Flexible C++
Matthew Wilson
My approach to software engineering is far more pragmatic than it is theoretical--and no language better exemplifies this than C++.


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