Tech-Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in Tech-History …

20th September 2023

FORTRAN Developed : 20th September

Q. Why Do Python Programmers Wear Specs?

A – Because they don’t see sharp!

That’s a programming humour for you. And talking of programming, there’s currently an explosion of code being auto-generated by AI and before long, human-coders may go the way of the early switchboard operators. Hmm, possibly!

Yet can you imagine painstakingly programming computers, line-by-line with assembly language, punched-cards and needing almost infinite patience? Yet that’s what life was like before “High-Level” languages came along and compiled the assembly language to make life easier.

69 Years Old This Week

One such language was reportedly first run this week in September, 1954 – 69 years ago. It was called “FORTRAN”, short for Formula Translating (depending on whom you ask) and developed for an early IBM machine (which still used vacuum tubes). The contemporary coding community were sceptical it would actually be any good, yet it quickly took off like wildfire. So if you’ve ever programmed in a language like BASIC or PASCAL at school (i.e. before all the web languages came along), you can thank FORTRAN as an early pioneer.

It was adopted enthusiastically largely because 20 lines of code in assembly language could be accomplished in just one line with Fortran. In fact, John Backus, the inventor of it reportedly said “Much of my work has come from being lazy“, during a interview with IBM’s ‘Think’ magazine.

He went on to say “I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701, writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

Still In Use Today

And while it’s relatively ancient, it’s still in use today! Primarily crafted for engineers and scientists, it continues to be employed in areas such as fluid dynamics calculations, economic modelling, computational physics, climate simulations, computational chemistry and astronomy.

The next time you’re having to shout due to a poor signal on your mobile-phone, spare a thought for lonely NASA probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. The first one is now around 15 billion miles away and the signal takes over 22 hours to reach back to earth, yet it still functions after approaching fifty years in space and it was originally programmed in FORTRAN.

Not bad for something originally created by a “lazy” programmer!