When a bright, 30-something persuaded the authorities to waive the restrictions on age and weight, and joined the US Navy in 1944, no-one could have foreseen the profound benevolent impact Grace Hopper would go on to have on computing and the world as we know it today.
This week marks what would have been the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper, the lady who came to be known as the Mother of COBOL. In our own tribute to Amazing Grace, let’s look at some of the details of how she helped drive the creation of the commercial world’s most ubiquitous and successful programming language.
Grace Under Pressure
Grace Hopper was already a well-known pioneer for computing by the time she attended the first Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) conference, a consortium that aimed to guide the development of a standard programming language that could be across multiple computers, in 1959. The output of that meeting was the blueprint for what was to become the COBOL computer language.
So what did Hopper bring to the party?
Hopper had already established the concept of the compiler – taking coded instructions and translating them into repeatable machine execution. This idea was carried forward into CODASYL.
CODASYL aimed that the language should be “used on many computers” (the success criteria was for code to execute on 2 different class of machines) – but it was on Hopper’s insistence that the language stipulation was further qualified to be as “close to English” as possible.
Hopper’s later work on language standards, where she was instrumental in defining the relevant test cases to prove language compliance, ensured longer-term portability could be planned for and verified.
Finally, although by no means the first, Hopper popularised the term ‘debugging’ (which at the time literally meant taking a moth out of a piece of computer circuitry), which was to become a vital component of later development products.
An Evolutionary Course
The CODASYL meeting took place in 1959. Computing was in its infancy. Very little survives from then in terms of technology or corporate entity. However, the blueprint for the COBOL language set an evolutionary course that ensured its adoption and usage across decades to come.
New standards bodies emerged as custodians of the language, agreeing updates to the standard in 1968, 1974 and 1985, with additional refinements in later years. Hopper continued to lobby for standardisation and the US Navy played a key role in establishing tests and metrics that allowed vendors and manufacturers to check against the standard.
The language was adopted as a de-facto standard by many hardware manufacturers, a plethora of whom started to emerge in the 1980s with the advent of the micro-processor. Soon enough, household name manufacturers were providing, among other technology, their own “COBOL compiler” product on their machinery. Of course, across the 500 or more platforms on offer to the mark since the late 1970s, Micro Focus provided the technology as part of an OEM engineering contract to the hardware industry.
Over time, the commercial world also evolved. The standard and the underlying technology for COBOL had to evolve with it, to support an array of emerging technology. Consider this list –
- Managed Code
No one could have predicted the astronomical growth of technology and how it disrupted entire industries and transformed billions of peoples’ lives. Yet Hopper’s language blueprint of portability, legibility and standardization was a platform from which vendors such as Micro Focus have been able to build out generation after generation of improvement, to enable COBOL to remain relevant, accessible and valuable in today’s commercial world.
Good News Travels Fast
The anniversary of Hopper’s birthday was commemorated by industry giants Google in the best way they know how, the creation of a unique “doodle” (the picture on the main search page) as homage to Hopper, including COBOL code being executed on an old machine and even the infamous moth making an appearance.
The press were also quick to share in the news. James Bourne’s Developer Tech article asked if we should now re-evaluate COBOL – Hopper’s invention having proved its value for such a long period. It cites how Micro Focus is also providing – with its latest products – a genuine solution to the perennial question surrounding skills.
Elsewhere the Independent online article also described Hopper’s invaluable contribution to the language and to the industry as a whole.
Nick Heath takes an IT skills slant to his article for ZDNet, highlighting the present day relevance of COBOL and talks to Micro Focus CTO, Stuart McGill about how Academia and business can help bridge the skills gap.
Hopper’s Legacy: COBOL today
Hopper remained active in the industry well beyond her scheduled retirement and – as a TV appearance on the Letterman show demonstrates – she remained formidably astute. Those design principles from over half a century ago, in other industries, would be unlikely to survive. Yet such was the foresight and shrewd thinking of Hopper and her cohorts, her legacy thrives to this day.
COBOL remains portable, scalable, debuggable, easy to learn, and is the preferred language of business for the vast majority of the global Fortune 100. Micro Focus embodies those principles in our COBOL technology: over 500 platforms have been supported with our portable COBOL technology – the industry’s workhorse business language – and we currently support 50 of those platforms today.
Micro Focus’ latest technology supports enterprise class COBOL applications being developed under Visual Studio or Eclipse IDEs and executing across a range of servers including zEnterprise, JVM, .NET, Unix, Windows, Linux and Cloud. Our Amazing Grace may no longer be with us, but the language she pioneered is still at the core of many business systems, and will continue for many years to come.