COBOL (koʊbɒl/, an acronym for common business-oriented language) is a compiled English-like computer programming language designed for business use. It is imperative, procedural and, since 2002, object-oriented. COBOL is primarily used in business, finance, and administrative systems for companies and governments. COBOL is still widely used in legacy applications deployed on mainframe computers, such as large-scale batch and transaction processing jobs. But due to its declining popularity and the retirement of experienced COBOL programmers, programs are being migrated to new platforms, rewritten in modern languages or replaced with software packages. Most programming in COBOL is now purely to maintain existing applications.
COBOL was designed in 1959 by CODASYL and was partly based on previous programming language design work by Grace Hopper, commonly referred to as “the (grand)mother of COBOL”.It was created as part of a US Department of Defense effort to create a portable programming language for data processing. Intended as a stopgap, the Department of Defense promptly forced computer manufacturers to provide it, resulting in its widespread adoption. It was standardized in 1968 and has since been revised four times. Expansions include support for structured and object-oriented programming. The current standard is ISO/IEC 1989:2014
COBOL has an English-like syntax, which was designed to be self-documenting and highly readable. However, it is verbose and uses over 300 reserved words. In contrast with modern, succinct syntax like y = x;, COBOL has a more English-like syntax (in this case, MOVE x TO y). COBOL code is split into four divisions (identification, environment, data and procedure) containing a rigid hierarchy of sections, paragraphs and sentences. Lacking a large standard library, the standard specifies 43 statements, 87 functions and just one class.
Academic computer scientists were generally uninterested in business applications when COBOL was created and were not involved in its design; it was (effectively) designed from the ground up as a computer language for business, with an emphasis on inputs and outputs, whose only data types were numbers and strings of text. COBOL has been criticized throughout its life, however, for its verbosity, design process and poor support for structured programming, which resulted in monolithic and incomprehensible programs.
History and specification
In the late 1950s, computer users and manufacturers were becoming concerned about the rising cost of programming. A 1959 survey had found that in any data processing installation, the programming cost US$800,000 on average and that translating programs to run on new hardware would cost $600,000. At a time when new programming languages were proliferating at an ever-increasing rate, the same survey suggested that if a common business-oriented language were used, conversion would be far cheaper and faster.
Grace Hopper, the inventor of FLOW-MATIC, a predecessor to COBOL
In April 1959, Mary K. Hawes called a meeting of representatives from academia, computer users, and manufacturers at the University of Pennsylvania to organize a formal meeting on common business languages.Representatives included Grace Hopper, inventor of the English-like data processing language FLOW-MATIC, Jean Sammet and Saul Gorn.
The group asked the Department of Defense (DoD) to sponsor an effort to create a common business language. The delegation impressed Charles A. Phillips, director of the Data System Research Staff at the DoD, who thought that they “thoroughly understood” the DoD’s problems. The DoD operated 225 computers, had a further 175 on order and had spent over $200 million on implementing programs to run on them. Portable programs would save time, reduce costs and ease modernization.
Phillips agreed to sponsor the meeting and tasked the delegation with drafting the agenda.
On May 28 and 29 of 1959 (exactly one year after the Zürich ALGOL 58 meeting), a meeting was held at the Pentagon to discuss the creation of a common programming language for business. It was attended by 41 people and was chaired by Phillips. The Department of Defense was concerned about whether it could run the same data processing programs on different computers. FORTRAN, the only mainstream language at the time, lacked the features needed to write such programs.
Representatives enthusiastically described a language that could work in a wide variety of environments, from banking and insurance to utilities and inventory control. They agreed unanimously that more people should be able to program and that the new language should not be restricted by the limitations of contemporary technology. A majority agreed that the language should make maximal use of English, be capable of change, be machine-independent and be easy to use, even at the expense of power.
The meeting resulted in the creation of a steering committee and short-, intermediate- and long-range committees. The short-range committee was given to September (three months) to produce specifications for an interim language, which would then be improved upon by the other committees.Their official mission, however, was to identify the strengths and weaknesses of existing programming languages and did not explicitly direct them to create a new language. The deadline was met with disbelief by the short-range committee. One member, Betty Holberton, described the three-month deadline as “gross optimism” and doubted that the language really would be a stopgap.
The steering committee met on June 4 and agreed to name the entire activity as the Committee on Data Systems Languages, or CODASYL, and to form an executive committee.
The short-range committee was made up of members representing six computer manufacturers and three government agencies. The six computer manufacturers were Burroughs Corporation, IBM, Minneapolis-Honeywell (Honeywell Labs), RCA, Sperry Rand, and Sylvania Electric Products. The three government agencies were the US Air Force, the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin, and the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). The committee was chaired by Joseph Wegstein of the US National Bureau of Standards. Work began by investigating data description, statements, existing applications and user experiences.
The committee mainly examined the FLOW-MATIC, AIMACO and COMTRAN programming languages.The FLOW-MATIC language was particularly influential because it had been implemented and because AIMACO was a derivative of it with only minor changes. FLOW-MATIC’s inventor, Grace Hopper, also served as a technical adviser to the committee. FLOW-MATIC’s major contributions to COBOL were long variable names, English words for commands and the separation of data descriptions and instructions.
IBM’s COMTRAN language, invented by Bob Bemer, was regarded as a competitor to FLOW-MATIC by a short-range committee made up of colleagues of Grace Hopper. Some of its features were not incorporated into COBOL so that it would not look like IBM had dominated the design process, and Jean Sammet said in 1981 that there had been a “strong anti-IBM bias” from some committee members (herself included). In one case, after Roy Goldfinger, author of the COMTRAN manual and intermediate-range committee member, attended a subcommittee meeting to support his language and encourage the use of algebraic expressions, Grace Hopper sent a memo to the short-range committee reiterating Sperry Rand’s efforts to create a language based on English. In 1980, Grace Hopper commented that “COBOL 60 is 95% FLOW-MATIC” and that COMTRAN had had an “extremely small” influence. Furthermore, she said that she would claim that work was influenced by both FLOW-MATIC and COMTRAN only to “keep other people happy [so they] wouldn’t try to knock us out”. Features from COMTRAN incorporated into COBOL included formulas, the PICTURE clause, an improved IF statement, which obviated the need for GO TOs, and a more robust file management system.
The usefulness of the committee’s work was subject of great debate. While some members thought the language had too many compromises and was the result of design by committee, others felt it was better than the three languages examined. Some felt the language was too complex; others, too simple. Controversial features included those some considered useless or too advanced for data processing users. Such features included boolean expressions, formulas and table subscripts (indices). Another point of controversy was whether to make keywords context-sensitive and the effect that would have on readability. Although context-sensitive keywords were rejected, the approach was later used in PL/I and partially in COBOL from 2002. Little consideration was given to interactivity, interaction with operating systems (few existed at that time) and functions (thought of as purely mathematical and of no use in data processing).
The specifications were presented to the Executive Committee on September 4. They fell short of expectations: Joseph Wegstein noted that “it contains rough spots and requires some additions”, and Bob Bemer later described them as a “hodgepodge”. The subcommittee was given until December to improve it.
At a mid-September meeting, the committee discussed the new language’s name. Suggestions included “BUSY” (Business System), “INFOSYL” (Information System Language) and “COCOSYL” (Common Computer Systems Language).The name “COBOL” was suggested by Bob Bemer.
In October, the intermediate-range committee received copies of the FACT language specification created by Roy Nutt. Its features impressed the committee so much that they passed a resolution to base COBOL on it. This was a blow to the short-range committee, who had made good progress on the specification. Despite being technically superior, FACT had not been created with portability in mind or through manufacturer and user consensus. It also lacked a demonstrable implementation, allowing supporters of a FLOW-MATIC-based COBOL to overturn the resolution. RCA representative Howard Bromberg also blocked FACT, so that RCA’s work on a COBOL implementation would not go to waste.
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