March 17, 2011 – February 11, 2013

Programmers at the Console of a UNIVAC I, with Unityper and Tape Drives, Gift of Grace Murray Hopper, women's history

National Museum of American History
1300 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC

1st Floor, Constitution Ave. Entrance, Artifact Walls

See on Map Floor Plan

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.