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A brief history of programming languages

In today’s world, software developers are king. They earn close to $100,000 a year on average, and they build the products that consumers use every day, from smartphones to computers to social media and websites. The work of programmers is everywhere, and there are all different kinds of languages used for it.

In fact, there are hundreds of programming languages, and it should come as no surprise that each one was created by a unique individual. Who were these individuals, and why did they invent new programming languages instead of using the ones already in existence? Let’s dive into the history and take a look at some of the most important programming languages ever made.

The first programming language was invented by Ada Lovelace in 1842. The first computer wasn’t invented until 1943. That’s right. The first programming language predates its hardware by a century. Lovelace designed her programming language around Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine, a device with thousands of mechanical parts that could process mathematical equations. The device was never built, but impressed by the designs, Lovelace designed punch cards that would work for the machine if it were ever built.

Fast forward over a hundred years, and the first electronic programming language is created in 1957. Called Fortran, or FORmulaTRANslation, John Backus and a team of developers at IBM invented the language in order to perform intensive computations for scientific purposes. Today the language would be considered restrictive with its limited capability, but it easily translates math into code and is still used for giant simulations (i.e., the kind that take days to process on a supercomputer), including atmospheric modeling, quark behavioral analysis, and more. Despite so many languages being created after Fortran, nothing comes close to Fortran in terms of raw computing power for numerical and statistical analysis.

Just two years later, the economy grasped the potential worth of programming languages, and so the second modern language was created. A development team headed by Dr. Grace Murray Hopper built COBOL, short for Common Business Oriented Language, a programming language that targeted business transactions. These transactions include ATM transactions, bookings, point of sale phone transactions, and more. Similar to Fortran, COBOL is still in use today. In fact, it powers 70% of all business transactions today. This is due in part to legacy software systems, including those at major banks, that are so large that the cost of change is high. It’s also due to the simple mentality “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” While COBOL isn’t a commonly known language today, it’s a crucial pillar to working software in the business world today.

As programming languages grew more complex over time, there was a need for educational tools, and in 1970 Niklaus Wirth created Pascal as a teaching tool for programming. Fitting then, that Pascal’s name itself is a history lesson: the language is named after Blaise Pascal, who invented the first adding machine in 1641. The language used a simpler syntax and was easier to teach to students. Eventually, the language caught on and became a force in its own right, powering the Macintosh in its early years, and Pascal is still used by Skype today.

The early 1970s marked a turning point for programming with the creation of C by software developer Dennis Ritchie of Bell Labs in 1972. C is the first low-level, general-purpose language and ranks second in the Tiobe Index, a metric that tracks the popularity of different programming languages. C is the segue between the older languages described above and the hundreds of languages that followed, and its popularity is a testament to C’s staying power. C is one of the first languages to ever be paired with an operating system, in this case Unix, and Ritchie introduced C as a portable language, one that isn’t limited to one processor. C is incredibly fast to compile and use, if difficult to write, and the language rethought the way programmers could interact with hardware and write code.

From the development of C onward, new programming languages cropped up with increasing regularity, and many of these languages have ties to C. Of course, C# developers and C++ developers owe their careers and skillsets to C, as both of these languages add functionality to a C core, but Java, JavaScript, PHP, Python, and Perl all derive much of their function and structure from C as well. If Fortran introduced electronic programming to the world, then Dennis Ritchie is the one who provided programming languages with a structure and style that still inform software today.

Article by Ellie Martin. Ellie Martin is co-founder of Startup Change group. Her works have been featured on Yahoo! , Wisebread, AOL, among others. She currently splits her time between her home office in New York and Israel. You may connect with her on Twitter

 

 

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