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FORTRAN - The First Programming Language

fortran first programming language

Long before Java, Python and C# came along, some smart chaps at IBM, namely John Backus, came up with one of the first widely used programming languages, FORTRAN.

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Still used today, FORTRAN has been part of computer programmers’ repertoire for 60 years.

Here’s a brief history of this revolutionary language.


Around the time when FORTRAN was being developed, computers received their instructions through hand coding, as high level programming languages were difficult to use due to the limited memory capacity of 1950's computers.

FORTRAN is credited as being one of the first compiler languages, which completed avoided the need to program using machine assembly code.

early programmers working

Although computer scientists were initially sceptical, the increased speed at which they could work with FORTRAN soon changed their minds. In later interviews, FORTRAN creator Backus has cited his laziness as one the motivating factors in creating FORTRAN, stating his desire to make it easier and faster to write programs.

Various versions of FORTRAN were created as the initial language was cleaned up and expanded. However, during the 1960’s and 1970’s problems began to emerge as individual programmers created their own FORTRAN dialects to suit their particular needs. This generally came to an end in 1990, with the release of FORTRAN ‘90’.

The code

Before disk files and text editors, programmers wrote code on punchcards which were fed into a card reader. Here is an example of FORTRAN code on a 1950’s punchcard.

early punchcard

The first version of FORTRAN had 32 basic commands. These included.





“Hello world!” example:

program helloworld
print *, "Hello world!"
end program helloworld

Usage today

Sixty years and an incredible number of technological advances later, FORTRAN is still being used to this day. FORTRAN is particularly useful for large scale number crunching and scientific computing such as computational fluid dynamics, numerical weather prediction and finite element analysis.

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