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Tales In Tech History: Cobol

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Invented in the 1950s and still around nearly sixty years later. It has been quite a journey for Cobol

Cobol has been one of the longest-serving programming languages in the world, and its impact on business, finance, and government-related IT systems cannot be overestimated.

Indeed, Cobol (Common Business Oriented Language) was invented back in 1959, when each computer maker used their own bespoke programming languages to tell a computer what to do.

But then someone had the bright idea to develop a user friendly common language that could run on more than one manufacturer’s computer. Cobol programs were successfully tested on two computers built by different manufacturers in 1960.

gracehoppercobolmainframeCommon Language

Cobol soon became an industry standard and it competed alongside other common languages, such as ALGOL and FORTRAN.

The CODASYL consortium is credited with the invention of Cobol, and it is worth noting that the language was partly based on previous programming language design work by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who is often referred to as “the (grand)mother of Cobol.”

But it was another woman, namely Mary Hawes, a Burroughs Corporation programmer, who in  first called for computer users and manufacturers to create a new computer language that could run on different brands of computers in March 1959. She said the language should perform accounting tasks such as payroll calculations, inventory control, and records of credits and debits.

The CODASYL consortium took up the challenge and it was led by Grace Hopper. The development work was carried out under a US Department of Defence project to invent a portable programming language for data processing.

Grace’s team thus developed the high level language that was closer to English than the machine code that was previously used to program computers.

And what they invented turned out to good… very good indeed.

Unlike anything before it, Cobol was user friendly, and as a language, it could be learnt by anyone (even non-programmers) in a matter of two or three weeks. It also had a unique capability in that the same Cobol code can be re-used time and again.

Back-end Workhorse

Cobol was standardised in 1968 and underwent at least four revisions over the following decades. In the early 2000s became fully object-oriented, and by 2011 Cobol had reached 50 years old.

Cobol to this day remains at the heart of many of the world’s legacy business applications and development tools.

Indeed, many of the mobile banking applications in use today run on data from mainframe applications written in Cobol years ago and in 1997, Gartner estimated that 80 percent of the world’s business ran on Cobol.

A separate piece of Gartner research a few years ago meanwhile revealed that an average person interacts with a Cobol application at least ten times a day. Gartner put the number of lines of Cobol code in existence at over 200 billion, with the global investment in Cobol applications exceeding several trillion dollars.

But Cobol longevity has counted against it in some ways. Its use, mostly in banking mainframes and other legacy systems, where millions of banking transactions are still processed daily with Cobol programs, has lead to concerns about skills shortages as elderly developer retire.

And Cobol and mainframe skills remain in demand. But this has raised questions as to why a programming language that is now in its sixties, has not been replaced before now.

The famous saying goes ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. That applies to Cobol, and long may it continue.

Quiz: Do you know your programming languages?