FORTRAN turns 50 years old in four days. October 15, 1956 was the release date for Programmer’s Reference Manual, The FORTRAN Automatic Coding System for the IBM 704 EPDM (6.1 Meg scanned PDF). FORTRAN was an amazing achievement, inventing the idea of a compiler while generating code as fast as hand-coded assembler.

There are a couple of early papers that give a feeling for how hard all this was. The FORTRAN Automatic Coding System (1957) describes the design of the compiler. History of FORTRAN I, II, and III (1978) goes into the economics of computing at the time, influences, design decisions, and follow-ons. They didn’t have it really working until April 1957, which seems rather similar to modern software projects.

Some possible ways to commemorate this occasion:

  • Use no words longer than six chars.
  • Propose the arithmetic IF as a Java extension.
  • Use GO TO. A lot.
  • Number your statements.
  • Refer to the LEDs on your computer as “sense lights”.
  • Solve a problem that uses only 32K 6-bit words of memory. Data and program has to fit.
  • No indentation.
  • Switch to vacuum tube heat this winter.
  • Write a program on a coding form, type it in, and run it. If there are any errors, even syntax errors, start over.

Prepare for the festivities by (re)reading the Programmer’s Reference Manual. It is only 51 pages, and refreshingly clear. The whole language fits in your head — no running back to the manual to figure out why const is propagating through your templates like a virus or whether you should use notify or notifyAll.

Older than FORTRAN

But only by a few months. Today is my 50th birthday, and the most reliable “birthday” I can find for FORTRAN is October 15, 1956, the publication date for the FORTRAN Programmer’s Reference Manual (scanned PDF).

I wrote my first program in FORTRAN. To be specific, FORTRAN IV EMU from Eastern Michigan University, running on the IBM 1401 (I think) at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I was at Operation Catapult, a three-week program for high school juniors. Big fun, and I’m glad to see it is still running.

The program was a two-body simulation, with the paths printed in in line-printer graphics. I wonder if I still have a copy of that somewhere in the “closed stacks” at the back of the garage.

FORTRAN wasn’t my first computer language, that was BNF grammars. I was reading SF in math class because I was being taught logarithms for the third time, and I’d learned them before I was taught them the first time (got a slide rule for Christmas in seventh grade). The teacher noticed and had me stay after to chat. He sympathized, but asked me to at least read a math book during class. So, I found one on computer programming and churned through it over a couple of weeks. I still have a fondness for colon-equals as an assignment op.