In the beginning there was FORTRAN

Fortran dates back to 1954 when John Backus in 1953 was searching for a technique which would make programming easier for programmers. Fortran began as digital code interpreter for IBM 701. When the project started it was named as Speedcoding and Backus came up with the name Fortran later. Fortran initially an acronym for FORmula TRANslation system which was later trimmed down to FORmula TRANslator. John Backus who led the team at I.B.M., came up with the name to no great enthusiasm from his colleagues. They used to joke that it sounded like something spelled backward. But nobody could come up with a better idea, so the name stuck, as did Fortran, a programming language that was a historic breakthrough in computing.

Pioneers of FORTRAN

Mr. Backus tapped Irving Ziller and Harlan Herrick (who ran the first Successful Fortran program), programming veterans, which in the early 50's meant they had a couple years' experience. Mostly, Mr. Backus simply chose people he spotted or who were recommended, persons who were bright and seemed to have a knack for programming.

Fortran team grew with time to 10 members. It had the notable names of scientists like - Richard Goldberg (a math Ph.D.) David Syre (a crystallographer), Robert Nelson (a cryptographer), Peter Sheridan (a chess wizard), Roy Nutt (an exceptionally gifted employee loaned from United Aircraft), a researcher from MIT (Sheldon F. Best), a woman who joined project out of Vassar (Lois Habit), Irvin Ziller and Hralan Herrick headed by John Backus. This team eventually produced the “Software equivalent of the Transistor”.

Fortran moved communication up one level closer to human than at the machine and was considered to be the first High Level Programming Language. But the real achievement of Fortran was the efficiency with which the Fortran program ran. At Los Angles conference, IBM arranged for a demo where IBM had invited its customers to come with programming chores. Assembly and Fortran programmers simultaneously coded the programs. The Fortran programs ran as efficiently as the Assembly ones. However the Fortran programs consumed far lesser time to code than the assemble program. Fortran when released in 1957 was a real triumph which revolutionized the whole computer genre.

FORTRAN Vs Assembly

Assembly language at that time was too specific for the machine at which it was being coded. With a clever design John Backus ensured that there was no platform dependence in the language construct. Though assembly programs were easier to read and code than then octal or hexadecimal representation but they were still mapped directly to the machine language. One machine language command was generated for each assembly command. However Fortran was capable of encapsulating several machine language commands into single statement and also utilized the concepts of loop optimizations. This allowed the language to sail along smoothly for 50 years. The compiler would make “surprising transformations” in the programs being compiled. A remarkable feat of programming in those days.

"95 percent of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran. It was a massive step."

Kenneth Thompson, creator of Unix

"In the beginning, there was Fortran."

James Gray, a leading software researcher who now works for Microsoft