Fifty years ago, each computer maker used its own programming languages to tell a computer what to do. In 1959, a group of programmers devised COBOL, a COmmon, Business-Oriented Language. Programs written in COBOL could run on more than one manufacturer’s computer. In a 1960 test, the same COBOL programs ran successfully on two computers built by different manufacturers.

A small group of programmers from the computer industry and its clients wrote the new language of COBOL. Both corporations and government agencies needed to maintain payrolls, prepare budgets, and track property, traditional aspects of business data processing. The Department of Defense was especially interested as it was one of few organizations to buy computers from different makers. COBOL was quickly adopted there, in other federal agencies, and in private industry. Additional common languages, such as ALGOL and standard forms of FORTRAN, were developed for scientists and engineers.

About the artifact walls

Artifact walls, consisting of 275 linear feet of glass-fronted cases lining the first and second floor center core, highlight the depth and breadth of the collections and convey that the Museum collects, studies and exhibits objects from our nation's rich and diverse history. The display is part of the special cases within the museum’s Artifact Walls that highlight anniversaries, new acquisitions to the collections and research findings.

About this case

COBOL featured commands written to resemble ordinary English, rather than lines of machine code that had formed many earlier programs. In a 1960 test, the same COBOL programs ran successfully on two giant computers built by different manufacturers. The exhibit includes parts of both of these kinds of computers, the actual printout from the first successful test of the language and related documents.

Online exhibition
Visit website