The Computer Revolution: From Room-Sized to Pocket-Sized

By Sophia Maddox | December 21, 2023

Meet the Architect Behind COBOL, Grace Hopper

Computers are an integral part of life. People use them to communicate with people who are important to them at work and home. Many people look up information that they want to learn on a computer. Others watch movies, play games or entertain themselves using computers. From early morning to late night, people rely on computer systems to help them stay organized.

While it is hard for most people to imagine life without computers, it hasn't always been that way. Here's a look at how people developed computers and their operating programs. Along the way, meet some people who influenced their development. You'll discover how computers went from filling entire rooms to being small enough to fit in your pocket.

 

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Hudson Valley One

After graduating from Yale University with a Doctorate in Mathematics, Grace Hopper gave up a teaching career at Vassar College to join the U.S. Navy. She worked on developing the Mark I computer at Harvard University and wrote a 500-page operator's manual for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. After World War II, she became a research fellow at Harvard University before joining Eckert-Mauchly Corporation and assisting with developing the universal automatic computer.

By the mid-1950s, businesses faced a problem applying computers to their companies. They were spending about $800,000 on programming costs and $500,000 on hardware to run them. A group convinced the United States Department of Defense to tackle the problem. Grace Hopper and others solved the problem by writing Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), allowing computers to understand words and numbers. She based COBOL on FLOW-MATIC language, which she developed first. While being modified a few times, it became the standard program all computers use.

John Backus and Team Forge the First High-Level Programming Language, FORTRAN

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According to John Backus, before his team developed FORTRAN, a computer programmer "had to employ every trick that he could think of to make the program run fast enough to justify the rather enormous cost of running it. And he had to do all of that by his own ingenuity because the only information he really had was the problem at hand, and the machine manual." He also pointed out that, sometimes, there was not even a manual. In addition, many computer programmers considered the information they had amassed highly guarded secrets that they would not share willingly.

In 1957, John Backus was working for IBM when he proposed to his superiors that the company develop a more practical alternative to assembly language that told computers what you wanted them to do. The development of FORTRAN eliminated the need to hand-code computer programs, helping to reduce startup costs. The program became widely accepted and was considered the standard for many decades.