Before Fortran, almost all computer programming was done in machine language—a cumbersome, complex set of instructions. First tested in 1954 and commercially released in 1957, Fortran marked the beginning of computer software. It gave computer users the first accessible “high-level” language and enabled computers to optimize commands 20 times more efficiently. Within a decade, Fortran became the first national computing standard (in 1966), and was used in most major data centers in the United States and parts of Europe. It later extended into smaller systems for complex information processing and problem solving—improving computer performance worldwide.
Good with numbers
Fortran’s capacity to efficiently process highly complex numerical problems almost immediately found a range of uses throughout industrialized and modernizing societies: calculating trajectories of airborne missiles and NASA flight patterns; computing complex economic and statistical models; engineering everything from overall product design to infrastructure construction and durability; and advancing science from weather prediction to computational physics and chemistry.
Ranking the world’s fastest computers
Since June 1993, the TOP500 project has twice a year compiled a list of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world. To ensure non-biased results, TOP500 uses the High-Performance LINPACK Benchmark to determine the rankings. The LINPACK benchmarks, written in Fortran, measure a system’s floating-point computing power.
Programming for all
Because it was a mix of shorthand English and algebraic equations, Fortran was especially appealing to the non-programming community, which didn’t necessarily understand the zeros and ones of machine code. Scientists, mathematicians and engineers quickly grasped the principles of Fortran and soon were able to input their problems directly into the computer without relying on a programmer to translate their needs into machine code.
Fortran turns 50
In 2007, the journal Scientific Programming devoted a special issue to mark Fortran’s 50th year. “Fortran Programming Language and Scientific Programming: 50 years of Mutual Growth” featured contributions by Van Snyder, a longtime member of the J3 and WG5 Fortran committees, and John Reid, convener of the WG5 committee and a member of the FSG committee.
More than 50 years after its debut, Fortran, the first high-level computer language, is still used every day: in Doppler radar weather forecasts or atmospheric and oceanic studies, as well as simulating nanoparticles, genomes, DNA and atomic structures. Farmers, too, use Fortran to help breed the most cost-effective chickens based on genetic selection.