25 March 2019
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19 December 2018
Ben Allen unpacks how the English-ish syntax of FLOW-MATIC and COBOL induced adoption by 1950s-era managers.
... the appearance of the language allowed managers to more easily understand what sort of thing a program was, even if it did not allow non-programmers to completely understand what any given piece of code actually did.In particular, he considers why Grace Hopper's proposal for French- and German-based syntax fell flat.
For Hopper, as for UNIVAC itself, programming language keywords were just labels given to bit patterns, labels that were freely interchangeable between each other. But when labeled in certain familiar ways, these bit patterns could become a source of budget increases. When implemented and marketed to customers, not as bit patterns but as things that look like English, they could result in sales. When they displayed just enough flexibility, they moved the line of what could get funding. When they displayed too much unexpected flexibility, they lost funding. Keywords were just a code, just bit patterns—but what they looked like was, at times, more important than what they were.