By Dylan Tweney
1959: A meeting at the Pentagon lays the foundations for the computer language that will later be known as COBOL, which goes on to become a mainstay of business computing for the next four decades.
COBOL, short for Common Business-Oriented Language, was one of the earliest computer languages. It was also, along with Fortran, one of the first programming languages to be based on English words.
It owes its existence to Grace Hopper, one of the earliest computer programmers. Hopper cut her programming teeth in the U.S. Naval Reserve, writing machine code for the Harvard Mark I computer during World War II. In the late 1950s, she came up with the idea that computer languages could be made to resemble human language, making them far more understandable than the assembly language and machine code used for all computer programming up to that point.
Sensing an opportunity to make computer programming more accessible and useful for business, the 1959 Pentagon meeting set up several working committees. They included reps from various computer manufacturers, so the language would be machine-independent. The most productive of those committees quickly developed the initial language specification, using Hopper’s Flow-Matic language as a starting point, and extending it with ideas from IBM’s business-oriented Fortran sibling, Comtran.