COBOL—the stalwart business programming language—turns 58 this week. On May 28–29, 1959, about 40 stakeholders gathered at the Pentagon to create the Short Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages. Funded by the U.S. government, the committee’s goal was to create a nonproprietary programming language for business data processing.
This diverse group (which included men, women, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans) created COBOL, or a COmmon, Business-Oriented Language, drawing inspiration from Grace Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC and IBM’s COMTRAN language. (Hopper is frequently incorrectly credited as the inventor of COBOL, though she actively supported its development.)
COBOL quickly drew the attention of major corporations and the Department of Defense, one of the largest entities to buy computers from different makers. COBOL could help run payroll and track inventories, and to this day, it dominates corporate and government data processing. Large organizations have yet to find a business case to replace their COBOL systems.
COBOL lives on
Why has COBOL stood the test of time? Primarily because it’s wordy and written in English, making it largely self-documenting. It’s easy to pick up where the last programmer left off and maintain his or her work.
Programmers love to hate stodgy COBOL. In fact, way back in 1959, co-creator Howard Bromberg even gave his fellow committee members a gag COBOL tombstone out of frustration with what he viewed as a bureaucratic development process. (Today the tombstone is on display at the Computer History Museum.)
But you can’t argue with what works, and COBOL programmers are still in demand to maintain legacy systems. As Alberto Ruocco, vice president and CIO for American Electric Power, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014: “Cobol is dead. Long live COBOL.”
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.