Programming Languages A History

Description: The research paper Programming Languages A History explains the history of Programming Languages. The first programming languages were created even before the modern computer. Programming has come into existence considering and transforming languages into codes. Herman Hollerith realized that he could encode information on punch cards when he observed that railroad train conductors would encode the appearance of the ticket holders on the train tickets using the position of punched holes on the tickets. Hollerith then proceeded to encode the 1890 census data on punch cards which he made the same size as the boxes for holding US currency.

The first computer codes were created for specific applications. During the first decade of the twentieth century, numerical calculations were based on decimal numbers. It was realized that logic could be represented by numbers, as well as with words. Alonzo Church was able to express the lambda calculus in a formulaic way. The Turing machine was an abstraction of the operation of a tape-marking machine, for example, in use at the telephone companies. However, unlike the lambda calculus, Turing’s code does not serve well as a basis for higher-level languages — its principal use is in rigorous analyses of algorithmic complexity.

The research paper suggests that like many “firsts” in history, the first modern programming language is hard to identify. From the start, the restrictions of the hardware defined the language. Punch cards allowed 80 columns, but some of the columns had to be used for a sorting number on each card. Fortran included some keywords which were the same as English words, such as “IF”, “GOTO” (go to) and “CONTINUE”. The use of a magnetic drum for memory meant that computer programs also had to be interleaved with the rotations of the drum. The programs that were created earlier were more hardware dependent than today.

To some people the answer depends on how much power and human-readability is required before the status of “programming language” is granted. Jacquard looms and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine both had simple, extremely limited languages for describing the actions that these machines should perform. One can even regard the punch holes on a player piano scroll as a limited domain-specific programming language, albeit not designed for human consumption.

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