Jean Sammet, Co-Designer of COBOL, Dies at 89

theodp writes:
A NY Times obituary reports that early software engineer and co-designer of COBOL Jean Sammet died on May 20 in Maryland at age 89. “Sammet was a graduate student in math when she first encountered a computer in 1949 at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,” the Times reports. While Grace Hopper is often called the “mother of COBOL,” Hopper “was not one of the six people, including Sammet, who designed the language — a fact Sammet rarely failed to point out… ‘I yield to no one in my admiration for Grace,’ she said. ‘But she was not the mother, creator or developer of COBOL.'”
By 1960 the Pentagon had announced it wouldn’t buy computers unless they ran COBOL, inadvertently creating an industry standard. COBOL “really was very good at handling formatted data,” Brian Kernighan, tells the Times, which reports that today “More than 200 billion lines of COBOL code are now in use and an estimated 2 billion lines are added or changed each year, according to IBM Research.”

Sammet was entirely self-taught, and in an interview two months ago shared a story about how her supervisor in 1955 had asked if she wanted to become a computer programmer. “What’s a programmer?” she asked. He replied, “I don’t know, but I know we need one.” Within five years she’d become the section head of MOBIDIC Programming at Sylvania Electric Products, and had helped design COBOL — before moving on to IBM, where she worked for the next 27 years and created the FORTRAN-based computer algebra system FORMAC.


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