Tech Time Warp: Happy Birthday, Jean Sammet, developer of FORMAC!

Posted by Kate Johanns on Mar 24, 2017 10:44:25 AM

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birthday.jpgA very happy birthday to Jean Sammet, born March 23, 1928, in New York City. Although not a household name, Sammet’s work paved the way for the technological innovations we all enjoy today—she originated and developed FORMAC, the first widely used programming language for manipulating nonnumeric algebraic expressions.

(The name FORMAC came from FOrmula MAnipulation Compiler. The language is a cousin to FORTRAN, which you might know from Hidden Figures; it’s the language Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, teaches herself from a library book.)

Sammet earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Mount Holyoke College and her master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois, where she later taught. From 1955 to 1958, she supervised the first scientific programming group at Sperry Gyroscope Co. During her time at Sylvania Electric Products (1958–1961), she was a leader on the COBOL committee.

Innovations at IBM and beyond

In 1961, she went to work for IBM, which is where she developed FORMAC. She published Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals in 1969. The book was described as an “instant computer classic” and “the standard work on programming languages.”

Sammet retired from IBM in 1988. In addition to her work at IBM and her teaching, Sammet has been devoted to her profession and preserving its history. She has been a leader in the Association for Computing Machinery, serving as president and vice president, and has served on the board of directors of the Computer History Museum. In 2001, she was named a Computer History Museum Fellow. IEEE honored Sammet with its Computer Pioneer Award in 2009.

The Computer History Museum website quotes Sammet: “From childhood on I hated to throw papers away. As I became an adult this characteristic merged with my interest in computing history. As a result, I created important files and documents of my own, and became concerned with having other people publish material on their important work so the facts (rather that the myths) would be known publicly.”

Happy birthday, Jean Sammet, and thank you for your pioneering work!

Barracuda MSP blog

Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.

Photo: Rich Helmer via

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