History of programming languages

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This article discusses the major developments in the history of programming languages. For a detailed timeline of events, see: Timeline of programming languages.

Early history[edit]

The first programming languages predate the modern computer.

During a nine-month period in 1842-1843, Ada Lovelace translated the memoir of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea about Charles Babbage's newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article she appended a set of notes which specified in complete detail a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, recognized by some historians as the world's first computer program.[1]

Herman Hollerith realized that he could encode information on punch cards when he observed that train conductors encode the appearance of the ticket holders on the train tickets using the position of punched holes on the tickets. Hollerith then encoded the 1890 census data on punch cards.

The first computer codes were specialized for their applications. In the first decades of the 20th century, numerical calculations were based on decimal numbers. Eventually it was realized that logic could be represented with numbers, not only with words. For example, Alonzo Church was able to express the lambda calculus in a formulaic way. The Turing machine was an abstraction of the operation of a tape-marking machine, for example, in use at the telephone companies. Turing machines set the basis for storage of programs as data in the von Neumann architecture of computers by representing a machine through a finite number. However, unlike the lambda calculus, Turing's code does not serve well as a basis for higher-level languages—its principal use is in rigorous analyses of algorithmic complexity.

Like many "firsts" in history, the first modern programming language is hard to identify. From the start, the restrictions of the hardware defined the language. Punch cards allowed 80 columns, but some of the columns had to be used for a sorting number on each card. FORTRAN included some keywords which were the same as English words, such as "IF", "GOTO" (go to) and "CONTINUE". The use of a magnetic drum for memory meant that computer programs also had to be interleaved with the rotations of the drum. Thus the programs were more hardware-dependent.

To some people, what was the first modern programming language depends on how much power and human-readability is required before the status of "programming language" is granted. Jacquard looms and Charles Babbage's Difference Engine both had simple, extremely limited languages for describing the actions that these machines should perform. One can even regard the punch holes on a player piano scroll as a limited domain-specific language, albeit not designed for human consumption.

First programming languages[edit]

In the 1940s, the first recognizably modern electrically powered computers were created. The limited speed and memory capacity forced programmers to write hand tuned assembly language programs. It was eventually realized that programming in assembly language required a great deal of intellectual effort and was error-prone.

The first programming languages designed to communicate instructions to a computer were written in the 1950s. An early high-level programming language to be designed for a computer was Plankalkül, developed for the German Z3 by Konrad Zuse between 1943 and 1945. However, it was not implemented until 1998 and 2000.[2]

John Mauchly's Short Code, proposed in 1949, was one of the first high-level languages ever developed for an electronic computer.[3] Unlike machine code, Short Code statements represented mathematical expressions in understandable form. However, the program had to be translated into machine code every time it ran, making the process much slower than running the equivalent machine code.

The Manchester Mark 1 ran programs written in Autocode from 1952.

At the University of Manchester, Alick Glennie developed Autocode in the early 1950s. A programming language, it used a compiler to automatically convert the language into machine code. The first code and compiler was developed in 1952 for the Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester and is considered to be the first compiled high-level programming language.[4][5]

The second autocode was developed for the Mark 1 by R. A. Brooker in 1954 and was called the "Mark 1 Autocode". Brooker also developed an autocode for the Ferranti Mercury in the 1950s in conjunction with the University of Manchester. The version for the EDSAC 2 was devised by D. F. Hartley of University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory in 1961. Known as EDSAC 2 Autocode, it was a straight development from Mercury Autocode adapted for local circumstances, and was noted for its object code optimisation and source-language diagnostics which were advanced for the time. A contemporary but separate thread of development, Atlas Autocode was developed for the University of Manchester Atlas 1 machine.

Another early programming language was devised by Grace Hopper in the US, called FLOW-MATIC. It was developed for the UNIVAC I at Remington Rand during the period from 1955 until 1959. Hopper found that business data processing customers were uncomfortable with mathematical notation, and in early 1955, she and her team wrote a specification for an English programming language and implemented a prototype.[6] The FLOW-MATIC compiler became publicly available in early 1958 and was substantially complete in 1959.[7] Flow-Matic was a major influence in the design of COBOL, since only it and its direct descendent AIMACO were in actual use at the time.[8] The language Fortran was developed at IBM in the mid '50s, and became the first widely used high-level general purpose programming language.

Other languages still in use today, include LISP (1958), invented by John McCarthy and COBOL (1959), created by the Short Range Committee, heavily influenced by Grace Hopper. Another milestone in the late 1950s was the publication, by a committee of American and European computer scientists, of "a new language for algorithms"; the ALGOL 60 Report (the "ALGOrithmic Language"). This report consolidated many ideas circulating at the time and featured three key language innovations:

  • nested block structure: code sequences and associated declarations could be grouped into blocks without having to be turned into separate, explicitly named procedures;
  • lexical scoping: a block could have its own private variables, procedures and functions, invisible to code outside that block, i.e. information hiding.

Another innovation, related to this, was in how the language was described:

  • a mathematically exact notation, Backus-Naur Form (BNF), was used to describe the language's syntax. Nearly all subsequent programming languages have used a variant of BNF to describe the context-free portion of their syntax.

Algol 60 was particularly influential in the design of later languages, some of which soon became more popular. The Burroughs large systems were designed to be programmed in an extended subset of Algol.

Algol's key ideas were continued, producing ALGOL 68:

  • syntax and semantics became even more orthogonal, with anonymous routines, a recursive typing system with higher-order functions, etc.;
  • not only the context-free part, but the full language syntax and semantics were defined formally, in terms of Van Wijngaarden grammar, a formalism designed specifically for this purpose.

Algol 68's many little-used language features (e.g. concurrent and parallel blocks) and its complex system of syntactic shortcuts and automatic type coercions made it unpopular with implementers and gained it a reputation of being difficult. Niklaus Wirth actually walked out of the design committee to create the simpler Pascal language.

Some important languages that were developed in this period include:

Establishing fundamental paradigms[edit]

The period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s brought a major flowering of programming languages. Most of the major language paradigms now in use were invented in this period:

Each of these languages spawned an entire family of descendants, and most modern languages count at least one of them in their ancestry.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw considerable debate over the merits of "structured programming", which essentially meant programming without the use of Goto. This debate was closely related to language design: some languages did not include GOTO, which forced structured programming on the programmer. Although the debate raged hotly at the time, nearly all programmers now agree that, even in languages that provide GOTO, it is bad programming style to use it except in rare circumstances. As a result, later generations of language designers have found the structured programming debate tedious and even bewildering.

To provide even faster compile times, some languages were structured for "one-pass compilers" which expect subordinate routines to be defined first, as with Pascal, where the main routine, or driver function, is the final section of the program listing.

Some important languages that were developed in this period include:

  • 1968 - Logo
  • 1969 - B (forerunner to C)
  • 1970 - Pascal
  • 1970 - Forth
  • 1972 - C                                                    

1980s: consolidation, modules, performance[edit]

The 1980s were years of relative consolidation in imperative languages. Rather than inventing new paradigms, all of these movements elaborated upon the ideas invented in the previous decade. C++ combined object-oriented and systems programming. The United States government standardized Ada, a systems programming language intended for use by defense contractors. In Japan and elsewhere, vast sums were spent investigating so-called fifth-generation programming languages that incorporated logic programming constructs. The functional languages community moved to standardize ML and Lisp. Research in Miranda, a functional language with lazy evaluation, began to take hold in this decade.

One important new trend in language design was an increased focus on programming for large-scale systems through the use of modules, or large-scale organizational units of code. Modula, Ada, and ML all developed notable module systems in the 1980s. Module systems were often wedded to generic programming constructs---generics being, in essence, parametrized modules (see also polymorphism in object-oriented programming).

Although major new paradigms for imperative programming languages did not appear, many researchers expanded on the ideas of prior languages and adapted them to new contexts. For example, the languages of the Argus and Emerald systems adapted object-oriented programming to distributed systems.

The 1980s also brought advances in programming language implementation. The RISC movement in computer architecture postulated that hardware should be designed for compilers rather than for human assembly programmers. Aided by processor speed improvements that enabled increasingly aggressive compilation techniques, the RISC movement sparked greater interest in compilation technology for high-level languages.

Language technology continued along these lines well into the 1990s.

Some important languages that were developed in this period include:

1990s: the Internet age[edit]

The rapid growth of the Internet in the mid-1990s was the next major historic event in programming languages. By opening up a radically new platform for computer systems, the Internet created an opportunity for new languages to be adopted. In particular, the Java programming language rose to popularity because of its early integration with the Netscape Navigator web browser, and various scripting languages achieved widespread use in developing customized application for web servers. The 1990s saw no fundamental novelty in imperative languages, but much recombination and maturation of old ideas. This era began the spread of functional languages. A big driving philosophy was programmer productivity. Many "rapid application development" (RAD) languages emerged, which usually came with an IDE, garbage collection, and were descendants of older languages. All such languages were object-oriented. These included Object Pascal, Visual Basic, and Java. Java in particular received much attention. More radical and innovative than the RAD languages were the new scripting languages. These did not directly descend from other languages and featured new syntaxes and more liberal incorporation of features. Many consider these scripting languages to be more productive than even the RAD languages, but often because of choices that make small programs simpler but large programs more difficult to write and maintain.[citation needed] Nevertheless, scripting languages came to be the most prominent ones used in connection with the Web.

Some important languages that were developed in this period include:

Current trends[edit]

Programming language evolution continues, in both industry and research. Some of the current trends include:

Some important languages developed during this period include:

Prominent people[edit]

Some key people who helped develop programming languages (in alpha order):

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. Fuegi and J. Francis (October–December 2003), "Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 'notes'", Annals of the History of Computing 25 (4): 16, 19, 25, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2003.1253887 
  2. ^ Rojas, Raúl, et al. (2000). "Plankalkül: The First High-Level Programming Language and its Implementation". Institut für Informatik, Freie Universität Berlin, Technical Report B-3/2000. (full text)
  3. ^ Sebesta, W.S Concepts of Programming languages. 2006;M6 14:18 pp.44. ISBN 0-321-33025-0
  4. ^ Knuth, Donald E.; Pardo, Luis Trabb. "Early development of programming languages". Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology (Marcel Dekker) 7: 419–493. 
  5. ^ Peter J. Bentley (2012). Digitized: The Science of Computers and how it Shapes Our World. Oxford University Press. p. 87. 
  6. ^ Hopper (1978) p. 16.
  7. ^ Sammet (1969) p. 316
  8. ^ Sammet (1978) p. 204.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rosen, Saul, (editor), Programming Systems and Languages, McGraw-Hill, 1967
  • Sammet, Jean E., Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals, Prentice-Hall, 1969
  • Sammet, Jean E., "Programming Languages: History and Future", Communications of the ACM, of Volume 15, Number 7, July 1972
  • Richard L. Wexelblat (ed.): History of Programming Languages, Academic Press 1981.
  • Thomas J. Bergin and Richard G. Gibson (eds.): History of Programming Languages, Addison Wesley, 1996.

External links[edit]