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History of Programming

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Gabbrielli and Martini (2010) traces the evolution of programming styles, methods, and factors of change over the years while Sebesta (2005) provides an overview of various languages and their significance over the same period. Through these resources and a few others, as space permits, this paper gives a short description of how programming developed in the last 60 years. Programming styles, generations and factors of change Gabbrielli and Martini (2010: pp 413-417) discuss the developments in programming since the first effort to program computers since the late 1940’s. A summary of their investigation is given here.

The initial computers like the EDSAC, Mark I and ENIAC etc. were large devices as computer chips, or even transistors were not invented by then. The size, cost and novelty of computers restricted their use mainly for research or occasionally for military purposes. Programming was not considered to be a mainstream requirement and the only way to communicate with these machines was through machine language using binary numbers. Machines languages were cumbersome to use and historically considered the “first generation” of languages. The “second generation” followed soon based on the need for relatively easier to remember coding instructions.

The assembler languages fall into this category. “Assemblers” converted these assembly language instructions to machine code instructions and had almost a one-to-one correspondence with each other with the only difference being that programmers did not have to code directly in the binary language and could use mnemonics for simple binary constructs. Both assembler and machine languages were computer specific and not portable. A leap in programming language development came in the 1950’s with the design of “third generation” or “high level” languages, which were a level of abstraction above the previous two categories.

This meant that the programming instructions were independent of the underlying hardware and the same program could be used on different machines if the compiler for that language existed. The introduction of FORTRAN in 1957 is considered a land mark in programming history by being the first of third generation languages. Unlike assemblers, FORTRAN and other languages that followed it included the ability to include algorithms and easier to understand for human users.

Later on, languages were developed, sometimes called the “fourth generation” languages, which were non procedural and use specific (Shelly & Vermaat, 2010: p: 444).

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