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The 60+ Year Journey of COBOL: From Obscure Code to Critical Infrastructure Linchpin

For the billions of transactions occurring daily across the global banking system, COBOL remains the steadfast workhorse driving progress behind the scenes. Nearly all ATM interactions route through COBOL programs. When governments disburse Medicare/Social Security funds to citizens, COBOL processes the workflows. Yet this stalwart language invented over 60 years ago lacks the flashy popularity of trendier options. How did the origins of COBOL lead to such an extensive real-world imprint that perseveres into the 21st century?

Grace Hopper and the Quest for Business Computing Language

During the post-World War II computing boom, most early programming focused on science and math. Visionaries saw potential for business uses – but human/machine interaction constrained progress. Coded instructions were at a raw binary level. Computer scientists might be conversant, but accountants? Hardly.

“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it‘s good enough for me” reputedly declared early programmer Grace Hopper regarding ease-of-use flaws in existing systems. Hopper’s contributions to developing an English-syntax computer language helped set the stage for COBOL’s later arrival.

The Call for Standardization & Structure

In 1959, the stalemate prompted the Pentagon to convene CODASYL – the Conference (later Committee) on Data Systems Languages. Prominent technical experts like Hopper joined military leaders in calling for an “easily understood language which can be communicated to English-speaking business personnel”.

CODASYL intended their proposed business language to offer big-enterprise capabilities like:

  • Handling large-scale data processing flows
  • Enable portable programs between systems
  • Provide output formatting flexibility
  • Allow simplified maintenance
  • Offer procedure division modularity
  • All while maximizing human readability

Tall orders! Yet through extensive analysis and discussion, CODASYL delivered their Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) specification in late 1959.

1960s: COBOL Starts Spreading its Wings

Even version 1.0 COBOL attracted great interest from governmental/industry circles for data processing tasks less suited to low-level development. Under the hood, COBOL used English-language syntax with structured logical divisions. By 1968, COBOL became an official American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard – boosting uptake further.

COBOL’s capabilities expanded over subsequent releases:

  • COBOL-61: First updates correcting early flaws
  • COBOL-65: Communications/table enhancements
  • 1974’s COBOL-74: Standardizing file access and operations.

With extensive training programs churning out skilled COBOL programmers yearly and major vendors like IBM firmly backing COBOL on their systems, adoption entered hyperdrive by 1970.

The Heyday: Dominance in Banking/Government (1970s-80s)

In terms of business computing language usage, COBOL became the runaway winner by the mid 1970s. By some expert analyses, it accounted for over 80% of all code being written for commercial data processing applications! What made it so wildly popular?

  • Structured design enabled dividing tasks between business system analysts and programmers
  • English-language syntax helped managers verify program logic
  • Prioritization of data accuracy/auditability
  • Mathematical/statistical abilities expanded over time
  • Portability between many computer systems
  • Rapidly trained development workforce due to educational focus

From insurance underwriting to government payrolls, COBOL automated millions of business processes – even handling reservation systems for the booming airline industry. Its pedigree and trustworthiness saw billions of lines created.

Maintaining Relevance Against Challengers (1990s-Today)

However by the 1980s, programing newcomers like C and Pascal intrigued developers with cutting-edge features and less rigid specifications. Could venerable COBOL keep pace?

Lingering technical constraints did push many new projects towards alternatives downplaying COBOL relevance today. Its deeply entrenched legacy code-bases do remain pervasive however, as full-scale migrations rarely justify benefits.

Let‘s examine COBOL‘s lingering importance through some data points:

Year Lines of COBOL Code in Use
1997 200 billion
2012 30 billion
2022 220 billion
  • 70% of global business transactions touch COBOL systems
  • 80% of data interactions rely on COBOL programs

Organizations like COBOL Cowboys formed recently to specifically maintain business-critical COBOL infrastructure as creators retire. Security/performance improvements in modern compilers like Fujitsu NetCOBOL also help. Additionally, newer revisions interface better with web infrastructure and programming languages programmers do find appealing and capable like C# or Java.

So while not attracting new coders, COBOL persists inexisting backbones of banking/insurance modules handling very specialized interactions. The hundreds of billions of LOCs will ensure its hard-earned place for decades more!

Grace Hopper’s vision thus became reality through COBOL’s creation story involving collaboration between military/technical/business interest groups. Its English syntax breakthrough fueled extensive real-world adoption that became hard to displace over time as so much relied on its specialized capabilities. And COBOL’s early design choices requiring structure foreshadowed later development frameworks that did gain greater esteem from programmers. While names like JavaScript and Python soak up “most popular language” glory today, behind the curtain hums COBOL – faithfully executing critical transactions round-the-clock thanks to its reliable heritage. Hopper would surely be proud of the long-term impact of her persistence in advocating business data processing advancements. The hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL code entrenched worldwide stand as a testament to pragmatic software language design standing the test of time.