Fifty Candles (each)

(stackoverflow rep: 4675, Project Euler 72/240 complete)

The first programming language I learned was a peculiar version of BASIC, running on the ICL mainframe installed during my abbreviated university career. I seem to recall it used a magnetic drum as its primary storage device. My second programming language, and the first I was ever paid real money for working with, was COBOL. It was the lingua franca of business computing, had been around forever and I started to learn it early in 1979. It turns out that “ancient” old COBOL had at the time only been around for about 20 years. As indeed had I, and this year we both turn 50.

Ah, the fun we had!

Ah, the fun we had!

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (I remember vividly a school “handyman”, inexplicably nicknamed “Sausage”, who would repair desks by applying a large hammer to drive screws). I used COBOL for things to which it really wasn’t suited. For a couple of years, that didn’t just mean writing peculiar code, it meant punching cards on an IBM 029 punch machine.

Programming for work was done on paper coding sheets, converted into machine-readable format (80-column punched cards) two evenings a week by Hazel the Punch Girl. Times change.

Once upon a time all code was written on these

Once upon a time all code was written on these

It wasn’t as bad as you might think: we only got to compile or run our code twice a day anyway, the rest of the time involved pencils and paper. Lots of paper. Some things change less than others.

Anyway, designing, coding, compiling and testing/debugging a program was a mammoth task: it took months. Lots of months. I think in the three years I was a programmer in my first job I wrote about eight complete programs.

Virgin input to the 029...

Virgin input to the 029...

In all, I was primarily a COBOL programmer for about 12 years, although there were secondary activities in PL/1, Fortran and C in the same period. I haven’t written a line since some time in early 1990. Can’t say that I miss it, not even now that it has object-orientation, a scary concept for a language that didn’t even use to have data scoping below “global”.

So happy birthday to COBOL, whenever it falls during the year. I can’t say I miss you but you paid the bills for over a decade, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

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