National Museum of American History Showcases COBOL

February 28, 2011
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will explore the invention of the COBOL computer-programming language on its 50th anniversary in a display opening March 17. This display has a companion website: http://americanhistory.si.edu/cobol.

COBOL, or Common Business Orientated Language, was one of the first computer-programming languages to run successfully on different brands of computers. In the early years of computing, each manufacturer used its own individual programming languages. Programmer Mary Hawes identified a need for a common computer language for use in accounting. A committee of computer programmers set to work on the task—the result was COBOL.

During 1960, teams at Remington Rand Univac office, in Philadelphia, and at the RCA Systems Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., worked to get COBOL running. They wrote COBOL compilers, highly specialized programs that translated general COBOL instructions into machine-specific code. 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. By 1961, 50 years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense could issue COBOL standards that were soon widely adopted.

“One of the interesting aspects of the COBOL project is that it brought together a diverse group of people, including men, women, African Americans and Asian Americans to create this important change in the computer industry,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum.

COBOL unified the system and was subsequently rapidly adopted by the Department of Defense, other federal agencies and private industry. By the 1970s, COBOL had become the preferred programming language for commercial data processing.

Although other languages have now taken over many of COBOL’s functions, COBOL programmers are still at work—on much smaller computers. COBOL and other common programming languages made the flourishing computer-software industry possible.

The display will be a part of the special cases within the museum’s Artifact Walls that highlight anniversaries, new acquisitions to the collections and research findings. Artifact walls, which line the central corridors of the first and second floors, showcase a variety of objects, from the everyday to the extraordinary, to convey the astonishing depth and breadth of the museum’s collections.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).