Re: History and evolution of compilers

William Clodius <>
1 Oct 1997 23:44:41 -0400

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From: William Clodius <>
Newsgroups: comp.compilers
Date: 1 Oct 1997 23:44:41 -0400
Organization: Los Alamos National Lab
References: 97-09-130
Keywords: history

A few pertinent comments:

There are two History of Programming Languages conference proceedings
the first:

Wexelblat, R.L. ed, "Proceedings: ACM SIGPLAN History of Programming
Languages Conference" (Los Angeles, July 1978). 758 pp. Academic Press
1981. ACM No548780. ACM Order Dept: (800)342-6626. QA76.7 .H56

I believe is out of print, the second

History of Programming Languages-II, Edited by: Thomas Bergin and
Richard Gibson. 1996, 880 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 0-201-89502-1

is available. Other ACM texts may also be of interest

It is difficult to specify clear milestones for languages. For example,
I believe Backus wrote his proposal for the implementation of Fortran in
1953, the first Fortran program (a simple hello world type construct
including simple math) was compiled in mid-to-late 1954, the language
was being beta tested externally in late 1955, FORTRAN I was offically
released in 1957, but the SUBROUTINE (which was part of Backus's
original proposal) only appeared in FORTRAN II which was released in
1958. Which of these is the date of origin of Fortran?

The term compiler in the 1950's was often a synonym for assembler and
the evolution from assembly language to higher level languages was to
some extent a gradual one. The references I have seen to Grace
Hopper's "compiler" suggests that it was more like an assembler with a
particularly extensive (for its time) library of procedures than what
would currently be considered a compiler for a higher level language.

There were several implementations of what would currently be
recognized as higher level languages available at the time FORTRAN I
appeared. Most of them, however, would be considered closer to
interpreters than compilers and none of them had the degree of
sophistication in optimization as the IBM FORTRAN I/II compilers. All
of them rapidly vanished after the appearance of
Fortran. Surprizingly, optimization for other Fortran compilers,
including IBM's Fortran IV compiler, was relatively minimal untill the
mid to late 60's.

The first description of a higher level language would be Konrad Zuse's
Plankalkul in 1945.

The first description of a machine language and a computer would be
Babbage in the 1830's. The first implementation of a computer depends on
the importance given to reprogramability, forms of memory access, the
nationality of the writer, start of construction, first successful
operation, etc. and a variety of dates between 1938 and 1946 can be

One minor question that I have is about APT (~1958) (Automatically
Programmed Tools) which is reportedly the first standardized language,
but I have never seen a quote of its date of standardization.

As to references the language list

is a good one though out of date and not as detailed as I might like.

Useful source of bibliographies are

A slightly related URL is the Retrocomputing Museum


William B. Clodius Phone: (505)-665-9370
Los Alamos Nat. Lab., NIS-2 FAX: (505)-667-3815
PO Box 1663, MS-C323 Group office: (505)-667-5776
Los Alamos, NM 87545 Email:

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