Fortran Specialist Group

My comments on FORTRAN versus Algol

Josef Illes

I would like to make a few comments concerning the presentation FORTRAN versus Algol by I.D. Hill.

I completely agree with him that the main reason that Algol was pushed to the sidelines by FORTRAN was the dominance of IBM in the computing world and their refusal to support Algol.

The first high-level language I learnt was Algol 60; I used it at the Budapest firm MAVEMI from 1965 until 1970. The hardware was a Danish GIER computer with 1K memory and 4K buffer and 2 drums. Program segments were paged onto the drum. I still feel nostalgic about it.

The author of the presentation is right; the first language you learn is like your first love. I also agree with the author of the presentation that it was a mistake not to include Input-Output in the Algol report. This meant that Algol programs were not portable between computers. I also think that FORTRAN, at least its earlier versions, was easier to learn, and engineers and scientists could write their own programs, while in Algol60 most of them needed a computer programmer to code their problem into an Algol program. In addition, FORTRAN was at the time a simpler language than Algol, it was closer to the machine code than Algol, the programs ran faster and it was easier to develop compilers for FORTRAN.

I also found it sad that Algol died out, but it has survived as part of PL/I which is considered a superset of Algol, FORTRAN and COBOL. For including Algol in PL/I, we must thank IBM. I wrote a couple of PL/I programs; PL/I is not easy to learn, and its full capabilities can be utilized only if one is fluent in all three languages, but one can write PL/I programs already if one is fluent in one of these languages. When I was writing PL/I programs, I knew well only Algol and a little FORTRAN, but I could write a river network modelling and flood forecasting program in PL/I to be run on an IBM 370 under DOS. At A.C. Nielsen Co. Ltd in Oxford they used to program in PL/I, but I do not know, how widespread the usage of PL/I is today.

Comment added by Peter Crouch, Feb 2007
According to the IBM website IBM PL/I provides a complete offering of compatible, cross-platform, cross-product compilers that support z/OS®, OS/390®, VM, VSE/ESA, AIX®, and Microsoft® Windows®
There are a number of other links to PL/I resources at the end of the Wikipedia article on PL/I

February 2007

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