Last May, I posted a note about the 51st anniversary of the project meeting that launched the COBOL programming language, and talked a little about the origins and history of the language. Now The Atlantic site has an article about a new venture by the Smithsonian Museum of American History, launched to celebrate another COBOL anniversary: it was on December 6, 1960, that a COBOL program was first run on computers from two different manufacturers. We are so used to the idea of portable programs, and of tools like Java that can run on multiple platforms, that we probably can’t appreciate what a big deal this was at the time. Early computers all had their own quirks, and were mostly programmed in what we would today call assembly language. COBOL, and Fortran, were the first big steps toward machine independence.
The Museum has added a new section to its Web site, summarizing some of the history of the language. The museum also has a particularly rich collection of related documents and other artifacts:
When it was first developed, a young file clerk learned of the language and decided to become expert in it. Joan Nichols worked as a programmer for forty years before donating her time as a volunteer with the Smithsonian. Her archive is the foundation on which this new exhibit will be built.
The Web site has a description of the planned exhibit, which will open next spring, along with a collection of images of people, equipment, and documents. The documents include some early programming manuals; unfortunately, the Web site has only images of the covers, not the contents, which I think would be most interesting to see.
There is still a lot of COBOL around and in use, although I don’t think anyone is quite sure how much. The longevity of the language is somewhat ironic, since it was originally intended to be a short-term expedient.
The committee that wrote COBOL was told to get a language running quickly. Other groups were supposed to write business-oriented languages for the long haul.
As Fred Brooks observed in his classic book, The Mythical Man-Month, technical writing (and programming) is close to immortal, because the paste-pot is mightier than the pen.