Smithsonian Celebrates COBOL's 50th Anniversary With New Site

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One of the oldest programming languages, COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) turned 50 this past week. On December 6, 1960, COBOL was first used on two different makes of computers, proving that compatibility across systems could be achieved. To celebrate the anniversary, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History built out a new section of their website dedicated to documenting the language's history; a related exhibit will open at the museum this spring.

"Written initially for the short range, COBOL proved so useful that it dominated much of government and business data processing for decades," the new website explains. "Millions of banking transactions are still processed daily with COBOL programs. As the use of common programming languages became standard, a flourishing independent computer software industry emerged."

While this seems a topic that the National Museum of American History would highlight anyway, they have a particularly interesting entry point with COBOL. When it was first developed, a young file clerk learned of the language and decided to become expert in it. Joan Nichols worked as a programmer for forty years before donating her time as a volunteer with the Smithsonian. Her archive is the foundation on which this new exhibit will be built.

This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog. It is republished here with permission. It was written by Peggy A. Kidwell, the museum's curator of mathematics.

See more posts about the Smithsonian.


COBOL1-Post.jpg

50 Years of Running COBOL

COBOL, a COmmon Business-Oriented Language, was proposed by a committee of programmers from business and government in 1959 and successfully demonstrated in 1960, 50 years ago. The National Museum of American History has just launched a website relating to the early days of COBOL, and a related exhibit case opens this spring.

COBOL2-Post.jpgOfficially, the reason for paying attention to COBOL is that it was one of the first computer programming languages to run on more than one brand of computer. The test programs not only ran at RCA, but on a computer of another manufacturer of the time, Remington Rand Univac. COBOL came to be widely used in banking, government and industry. It featured commands written to resemble ordinary English, rather than the lines of machine code that made up many earlier programs.

Unofficially, the reason for this display is COBOL programmer and former Smithsonian volunteer Joan Nichols. As a student, Ms. Nichols had never heard of programming. After graduating from Indiana University in 1952, she took a job as a file clerk at National Supply Company in Pittsburgh. She rose steadily through the clerical ranks and then heard that the company was giving selected employees aptitude tests for a new kind of job. She persuaded her boss to let her take the tests, did well, and soon was learning how to program an IBM computer. It was immense fun for Ms. Nichols. She moved on to Mellon Bank, learned COBOL when it came out, and then went on to work for the federal government.

COBOL3-Post.jpgThe committee that wrote COBOL was told to get a language running quickly. Other groups were supposed to write business-oriented languages for the long haul. In fact, Ms. Nichols and other programmers used COBOL for decades. After forty years of programming, she retired and offered to help out at the museum. She cheerfully prepared a listing of many computer-related documents, including the test program shown in the first photograph. Because of her work, we knew that the museum had strong holdings relating to COBOL and could find them easily.

Joan Nichols has now left the Washington, DC, area. However, as with many who have contributed countless hours to the Smithsonian over the years, her legacy endures.

To learn more, see: http://americanhistory.si.edu/cobol.

Peggy A. Kidwell is Curator of Mathematics at the National Museum of American History.

Images: 1. Printout from the COBOL test programs run December 6, 1960 at RCA; 2. Programmers at the Console of a UNIVAC I, with Unityper and Tape Drives; 3. Programmers at the Console of a UNIVAC I.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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