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Jean Sammet by @SebastianNavasF

Jean Sammet — Designer of COBOL

Alvaro Videla
Dec 5, 2018 · 3 min read

In our previous article we talked about the creator of FLOW-MATIC, the first data processing language with an English-like syntax. Now is time to talk about the creator of its successor: COBOL, one of the most widely used programming languages in the world.

Besides being known for creating widely popular programming languages like COBOL, writing one of the most influential books about the history of programming languages, or being the first woman president of the ACM, Jean Sammet had very humble origins into her profession. Let’s read some of those anecdotes.

While she was working at Sperry Gyroscope in the early ’50s, her boss had the realization that computers were the future… so he told her that they were going to build one. What was Sammet’s reply to her boss?

‘I’ve heard of it. I’m not sure I know what that means.’’

Keep in mind that we are in the early ’50s, where computers are things that belong either at a few academic institutions that had the resources to build one, probably even related to military projects. In any case he tells Sammet if she wanted to be the company’s programmer. Sammet’s answer?:

What is a programmer?

One would think that her boss knew the answer. Nope, but in typical manager’s fashion he said:

I don’t know, but I know we need one!

She guessed it had to do with punchcards (something she knew already from a training she did with punched-card accounting machines). At the same time she wasn’t really inspired from working on a submarine project for the Navy, so she wanted to give it a try:

‘‘Well, that punch-card stuff was fascinating. I’m not too inspired with this submarine stuff. I should at least give this a try.’’ So I became the programmer. No books, no manuals, no instructions, no nothing[…] — Jean Sammet

Her first program only took 20 days to toggle into the Speedac computer by hand, using binary. If real programmers pull wires to debug their programs, it seems that real programmers program in binary as well ;-)

It didn’t take much for Sammet to become the lead programmer at Sperry Gyroscope, but the future would make her cross path with one of computing greatest, Grace Hopper. This led to a cross pollination of ideas, that later helped Sammet on her work in COBOL and FORMAC.

Programming Language Historian

Jean Sammet is well know for her work as a programming language historian. Back in 1969 she published the book Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals, where she classifies around 120 programming languages.

In that book we see curiosities like DSL/90, which stands for Digital Simulation Language; COLINGO which stands for Compile On LINe and GO; Lincoln Reckoner, which wins the prize of most interesting programming language name on earth; and of course STRESS, because why not?

Jokes aside, in her 1972 paper Programming Languages: History and Future she left us with one of the coolest charts about programming language history. We leave you to it. Until tomorrow!

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Language History Chart by Jean Sammet — Programming Languages: History and Future, CACM 1972

Advent Calendar — Help us make it a book!

From December 1st until December 24th we plan to release one article each day, highlighting the life of one of the many women that have made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is: From early compilers to computer games, from chip design to distributed systems, we will revisit the lives of these pioneers.

Each article will come with an amazing illustration by @SebastianNavasF.

If you want to see these series to become a book with expanded articles and even more illustrations by Sebastián, then subscribe to our newsletter below.



A Computer of One’s Own

Pioneers of the Computing Age

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