A toast to Cobol, a true computing hero

50 years ago, breakthrough language helped avoid a programming Tower of Babel

I was watching “Toy Story 3” the other day and was surprised to see Barbie, who turned 50 last year, featured in the movie. I have to say, she looks pretty good, though I suspect she’s had some work done.

When everyone’s favorite doll turned 50, people rolled out the pink carpet and celebrated with parties around the world. But when the granddaddy of programming languages celebrated the same milestone, not a lot happened.

Given that Cobol today still processes billions of transactions (its last official update was in 2002), you would think that it would get a little more respect than a girl with a plastic head.

It’s nice to see that the Smithsonian Museum feels the same way. The National Museum of American History plans an exhibit focused on Cobol for this spring.

Cobol stands for Common Business-Oriented Language and was first proposed in 1959 because a computer language was needed that could run on any computer. It was first successfully demonstrated a year later. Without Cobol, each early computer might have developed its own proprietary computing language.

Instead, we started on a path to interoperability that would come in very handy later on. Without it, for example, computers from Hewlett-Packard might have been designed without the ability to run programs on or talk with systems manufactured by Dell.

A decade ago when I was working as a reporter for Government Computer News, before they moved me into the test lab, a huge story in government was the retirement of Cobol programmers. Federal agencies were still running programs written in Cobol, but all the new kids coming starting careers in government service had no idea what it was. The concern was that once the old guys left, nobody could fix the aging computers if something went wrong.

The solution in many cases was to eliminate systems running Cobol, which was probably a smart move given their age. But even during this great purge, some Cobol systems survived and continue to chug away today like true patriots.

Cobol deserves our respect, so I’d like to offer it a toast:

Less wordy that Fortran, more useful than Haskell, not as much of a nerd as C++, and certainly not soulless like Binary Code, Cobol is as much a part of the American tapestry as anyone else. So programmers, raise your cans of late-night Red Bull to a true American hero, a warrior who just turned 50 years old, and wish it 50 more. Slainte, Cobol!

And if you happen to have a Cobol story, we’d love it if you could share. Let us know about your old friend in the comments area below.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.