Today marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the original Fortran Programmer’s Reference Manual. Fortran was the world’s first high-level computer programming language, was developed beginning in 1953 at IBM by a team lead by John Backus. The first compiler was released in 1957. According to the manual, one of the main features was:
Object programs produced by FORTRAN will be nearly as efficient as those written by good programmers.
The creation of Fortran may rank as the single most important event in the history of computer programming: Finally, scientists (and others) could tell the computer what they wanted it to do, without having to descend into the netherworld of machine code. Although modest by modern compiler standards—Fortran I consisted of a mere 23,500 assembly-language instructions—the early compiler was nonetheless capable of surprisingly sophisticated computations. As Backus himself recalls in a recent history of Fortran I, II, and III, published in 1998 in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, the compiler “produced code of such efficiency that its output would startle the programmers who studied it.”
The entire manual was only 51 pages long. Fortran has evolved significantly since the 1950s, and the descendant of this fairly simple language continues to be used today. The most recent version of the language (a 603 page ISO standard) was published in 2010.