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Who Invented the Computer? The PDQ Posse and COBOL

GoCertify takes a tour through the annals of recorded science to illuminate the origin story of one of the most consequential inventions in the history of humankind. In today's installment: need more COBOL.

Who Invented the Computer? This is the sixteenth installment in our ongoing series.

 

The U.S. military needed COBOL to get its ducks in a row.In 1959 the U.S. Armed Forces was the world leader in computer usage. The Department of Defense owned and operated 225 large scale computers and had an additional 175 on back order. A large portion of all that computing power was allocate to the conversion of existing paper filing systems to better track personnel, equipment, supplies, and the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent.

 

Unfortunately, the military was using dozens of different computer languages on their systems. As a result, the cost of programming, $200 million annually, was raising eyebrows at the Pentagon.

 

In order to save money and speed up the process of modernizing computer systems, DoD leadership asked its tech gurus to come up with a new programming language. In short, one that would be easy to use, would rely on English-like syntax for programming, would be capable of modifications, and would be portable between systems. No small task.

 

In May of 1959, the Air Force convened an exploratory conference to discuss the feasibility of potential ways in which a common business language (“CBL”) might be created. Realizing the widespread potential benefits of such a language, representatives from the Navy and the National Bureau of Standards were invited to attend the conference along with numerous industry professionals.

 

One Language to Rule Them All

 

The U.S. military needed COBOL to get its ducks in a row.The attendees all liked the idea of a CBL and, in the usual government manner, quickly established an oversight committee as three sub-committees: short-range, intermediate, and long-range.

 

The short-range committee was made up of representatives from the three government agencies and the nation’s six largest computer manufacturers: the Burroughs Corporation, IBM, Minneapolis-Honeywell, Sperry Rand, and Sylvania Electric Products.

 

Their three-month assignment was to identify strengths and weaknesses of existing programming languages and come up with specifications for a stopgap measure — an “interim language” that would later be improved upon by the other two committees. Unfortunately, members of the other two committees got bogged down in arguments over competing designs and failed to do more than meet a couple of times.

 

Dubbing themselves the PDQ committee (“Pretty Darn Quick”), the short-range team got to work focusing their investigation on two popular existing programming languages, IBM’s COMTRAN and FLOW-MATIC, the first English-like data processing language. Of the two languages, FLOW-MATIC’s design structure would prove to be most influential.

 

FLOW-MATIC had been developed previously by the Remington Rand Corporation under the direction one Grace Hopper, who just happened to be serving as a technical advisor to the PDQ team. The PDQ group settled on a hybrid of the best aspects of both the FLOW-MATIC and COMTRAN languages.

 

Group leaders wrote up the specifications for the new language and presented it to the oversight committee for review on Sept. 4. The oversight guys were not impressed. They referred to the new language as a “hodgepodge,” and sent it back to the PDQ team for revisions, saying that it “contained rough spots that required some additions.”

 

We'll Get on That

 

The U.S. military needed COBOL to get its ducks in a row.Living up to their moniker, in less than three months the PDQ committee completed its revisions and once again presented its work to the oversight committee. The new scheme was deemed a success and named the Common Business Oriented Language (“COBOL”). One year later, on Dec. 7, 1960, COBOL was successfully running on an RCA 501 computer and a Remington Rand UNIVAC computer.

 

(A niche movement among computer historians sometimes addresses the PDQ crew as the "Lords of COBOL." Or maybe that's just a really bad Glen A. Larson joke that we couldn't resist.)

 

COBOL proved popular with programmers and, within a PDQ timeframe, was dominating the world of business computing. In addition to the simplicity of writing programs in English-like syntax, COBOL became the favored programming language for two reasons:

 

First, the DOD insisted that computer manufacturers use the program when selling machines to the military. Second, COBOL’s designers insisted that the new language be free software, open to all who wanted to use it. Free software was an industry-altering development at a time when corporations jealously guarded intellectual property rights and users typically rented computers by the hour

 

Ointment, Meet Flies

 

Of course, nothing is without its critics and COBOL had plenty, particularly from the field of academia which had no role in its development. University computer instructors often complained that COBOL was designed by a committee and unsuited to the sort of data crunching they did.

 

As the 1980s rolled around, and more powerful programming languages were developed, academic critics became even more outspoken against COBOL, often telling students that COBOL was a “dead programming language.”

 

One world-renowned computing pioneer, Edsger W. Dijkstra went so far as to declare in a public forum in 1975 that “the use of COBOL cripples the mind.” Not only that, but Dijkstra further declared that COBOL's brain-cramping unsuitability should cause the teaching of it to be "regarded as a criminal offense.”

 

Still, COBOL remained popular as businesses and governments at all levels continued using it. The program received a real boost in the late 1990s, as organizations at all levels worldwide were furiously working to update their computer systems before in advance of the forecasted end-of-millennium doomsday glitch.

 

Because COBOL programs stored dates in a two-digit format, original COBOL programmers were hired out of retirement at huge salaries to prevent the Y2K apocalypse. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy even made an appeal on television pleading for COBOL programmers to help fix the state’s legacy systems.

 

Still Going

 

Today, COBOL remains in widespread use, particularly on mainframe computers doing large-scale batching and transaction processing jobs. Amazingly, 80 percent of all financial transactions in the U.S. are completed with COBOL, as are 95 percent of ATM transactions.

 

The U.S. government remains heavily reliant on the 62-year-old programming language. The Social Security Administration runs their computer systems with COBOL, the DoD processes all payments with COBOL ($721.5 billion in FY2020), and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as almost every state financial system, still uses COBOL-directed systems.

 

While some industry leaders continue to debate the need for COBOL, the language isn’t going away any time soon. There are hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL code in operation today and an estimated five billion more are generated annually. As long as there are large-scale computer systems with big workloads, COBOL will be on the job.

 

 

Calvin Harper ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.