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Smithsonian Celebrates 50 Years of COBOL 178

wiredog writes "The Atlantic reports the news that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a new section of their website dedicated to documenting COBOL's history. An exhibit will open at the museum this spring."
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Smithsonian Celebrates 50 Years of COBOL

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  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @12:56PM (#34575226) Journal
    Under cover of darkness, employees of the Museum of Natural history broke in and appropriated the exhibit to add to their world-renowned dinosaur collection...
    • 30 years from now, it will be PERL. With turtles, all the way down!

      • Perl will die around the same time the world's oil reserves dry up or when we run out of IPV4 addresses. People love to talk about it, but it'll never actually happen.

      • by kat_skan ( 5219 )

        With turtles, all the way down!

        That's LOGO. Perl would be camels I think.

    • by Ukab the Great ( 87152 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @02:22PM (#34576620)

      The following week Ben Stiller broke into the Museum of Natural History and the museum's computers started having Y2K problems when the 50 year-old COBOL exhibit came to life.

    • These dinosaurs aren't extinct though.

      Banks still use COBOL [bankingtech.com] heavily.

      COBOL was my first language, so I have a soft spot for it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by sycodon ( 149926 )

        COBOL excels at moving data from file to file. I haven't seen the Redefines capability in any other language and is very very powerful when it comes to slicing up data before transformation and then putting it back together in other formats.

        Of course, nothing can touch the combination of mainframes and COBOL when it comes to processing millions and millions of records.

        • Of course, nothing can touch the combination of mainframes and COBOL when it comes to processing millions and millions of records.

          That sounds kind of like Dr. Evil:

          "My mainframe computer is so powerful, it can process ... MILLIONS of records! Hahaha!"

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      COBOL -- Crappy Old Bad Obsolete Language

      But, it IS a dinasaur. It was one of the very first computer languages there were. It was a milestone in computing history. From the Yale page about Grace Hopper [yale.edu]:

      Pursuing her belief that computer programs could be written in English, Admiral hopper moved forward with the development for Univac of the B-O compiler, later known as FLOW-MATIC. It was designed to translate a language that could be used for typical business tasks like automatic billing and payroll calcula

  • by fade ( 4063 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:00PM (#34575304) Homepage

    When I read the headline, my head parsed "Smithsonian celebrates 150 Years of COBOL" ... but I guess that's just because when it's COBOL, it only feels like 150 years.

  • by SomeoneGotMyNick ( 200685 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:07PM (#34575388) Journal

    There will not be a single dedicated area to show off the exhibit. Instead, the exhibit will be scattered about in separate rooms called copybooks.

  • by forkfail ( 228161 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:09PM (#34575434)

    ... in the Paleontology area.

  • "Feeling old yet? Smithsonian...perfect. Just perfect."
    (Was my friend's response...I'm too young to appreciate this fully, he is not).

  • This fortune was so close to being in this article:
    COBOL is for morons. -- E.W. Dijkstra
    Too bad this article wasn't posted sooner
    • Really COBOL, in the last iteration I worked with it in at least, had 'caught up' with the times in alot of ways. 10 years ago I learned OO COBOL, which really made COBOL alot like C++. Though COBOL was sort of limited in IO: files, text to screen, and at most pixel switching for primitive graphics. No fancy GUI's here. Most of COBOL though was about file interaction, bring stuff in, work on it, and output once more. Sometimes with user input, though often not.

      • by sycodon ( 149926 )

        The combination of Mainframes and COBOL is the Catapiller D9 of computer system. When it comes to moving mountians of data through the system, the girlie languages running on PC farmes just can't keep up.

      • 'Caught up with the times' and 'a lot like C++' are not really compatible comments.
        • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

          True. The only people that think that C++ is a good object oriented programing language are people that have only used C++.

        • I'm not a programmer by trade, I'm a network 'engineer'/'administrator'. What I learned in programming stopped at Java/C++ (C++ being taught within a Java environment actually). So the latest wizz bang language are thinks outside my scope.

          However 10 years ago OO was a key factor in 'modernizing' COBOL. Saying that those things didn't make COBOL 'catch up with the times' by matching what was then easily the most popular coding language (remember Java was very new then) of the time... Well that sure seems 'ca

  • Good Times (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bucc5062 ( 856482 ) <bucc5062 AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:14PM (#34575534)

    It may be crass to admit, but I had some great experiences working in my first COBOL position. Sure it dates me...so what, I got a lawn and am proud of it. I do appreciate the development tools I use as a current developer, but something about the simplicity, and the structure make me feel nostalgic. Lately I see code with no documentation, no good structure and buggy. COBOL, FORTRAN, and Pascal separated IT programmers (and staff) from middle managers and office workers that today think writing an Access VBA makes them a .net developer. You can't go back (nor would I, but for the need of a job), yet I would like to see some of the foundations that went into development groups make a comeback.

    • I guess I just need to go out and learn Fortran for the old school trifecta!

      I know my first year CS they taught Pascal, and then changed standards to C the following year. Thanks for that. COBOL was, and probably still is taught for those students with high pain thresholds.

      I don't actually program for a living (though I use scraps here and there), so I don't have all the new sexier languages. I know the few times I have applied for a new positions, having those languages and stuff like Assembly, etc... on m

      • So true. I'm glad my boss doesn't have that philosophy. Recently there was a bunch of work that needed to be done in ActionScript 3 for a project in another department and my boss came to me knowing that even though I'd never used the language, I'm a good programmer and I'd figure it out. Mind you, you'd have to at least be familiar with OOP, but that's not exactly new or trendy any more...

    • ...and C++, Java and C# separate me from the middle managers who think the fact they wrote FORTRAN 30 years ago makes them a software engineer today.

      "A real programmer can write FORTRAN code in any language!" Oh, the horrors.

    • I would add ALGOL PL/1 and MIX to that list of oldies. PL/1 was my first. I paid 10 dollars for a programming language manual in about 1976 and didn't eat that week, but I had the most curious week of reading... Proc Options (Main); humm the rest is blue screens and history....
  • I remember seeing ads for COBOL programmers in the careers section of the paper throughout the 1990's... with steadily increasing salary ranges, right up until about mid-October of 1999, where I was routinely seeing offers 80K per year or sometimes even more for new grads, it seemed that there were quite a few companies getting desperate to have COBOL programmers.

    Then, suddenly, within the space of only a week or two, the COBOL programmer ads stopped.

    By November, every last one of them was gone.

    I never saw another COBOL programmer wanted ad after that. Ever.

    • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:24PM (#34575672) Homepage

      Because, once the Y2K bug was fixed, those systems that were already probably working just fine with 20-30 years of minimal maintenance and one huge spurge of Y2K updates will carry on running, most probably. Or people took it as a sign that maybe it's *not* a good idea to be relying on code that nobody on your staff can understand in order to run your business.

      See what happens come 2038. That'll be the interesting bit.

    • Now COBOL is basically used in years-old legacy code which is held together by the programming equivalent of duct tape. And nobody wants to touch that mess. Oh no.

      • nonsense, COBOL is still used in code that moves money and processes insurance claims. I've been a part of adding new features with newer technology to some of those systems even in the last year. Still going strong, still people maintaining code bases of COBOL and related languages such as RPG and very old JCL. And no, we don't put the COBOL and related parts on our resumes either 8D

        How many closet dinosaur-language slashdotters are there?

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          I had to learn JCL for work (took a college class, paid for by my employer). JCL is a scripting language, like Perl, not a database language. It stands for Job Control Language. IINM I still have a thick, hardcover book on it. If you look it up on wikipedia, the article's editor compares it to DOS.

          COBOL would be more like NOMAD (I loved NOMAD).

          I'm unfamiliar to RPG.

          How many closet dinosaur-language slashdotters are there?

          IIRC it was the late '90s I learned JCL. I did hand-assemble machine code for the Z-80

        • How many closet dinosaur-language slashdotters are there?

          Here's another, although my COBOL programs run on an AS/400 (a.k.a iSeries, system I, whatever the heck IBM has decided to call it today) instead of Really Big Iron. Some of the code that I wrote on a CISC-based System 38 over 2 decades ago is still running on a Power6 RISC-based system today, with nary a recompile involved.

          It's hard to argue with "works".

      • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:38PM (#34575890) Homepage

        Now COBOL is basically used in years-old legacy code which is held together by the programming equivalent of duct tape. And nobody wants to touch that mess. Oh no.

        While that's likely true, it's hardly unique to COBOL.

        Any codebase which is over, say, 5 years or more, is likely creaking under its own weight and nobody really knows how all of the parts work anymore.

        The software also likely runs day in, day out, 365 days/year, and does everything it has been developed to do. I've seen projects that try to replace such legacy systems -- after you've spent millions trying to write something new which does most of what you need, you discover that there's huge gaping holes in your coverage, and you're nowhere near where you'd need to be to replace it. Often, the project gets scrapped at that point as people realize you're never going to be a viable replacement.

        Hell, I knew a guy in the 90s who was retired from a company, and drawing his full pension, and working as a consultant at big $$$ rates to maintain the stuff he did before he got paid. All said and done, he was making about 4x in retirement what he made before he retired. They simply had no other people who could have possibly had the 30 years of experience he had on this mammoth system which ran on mainframes.

        Trying to get rid of that old creaky legacy code is nigh on impossible in some cases.

    • by cje ( 33931 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:32PM (#34575796) Homepage

      There was once a COBOL programmer in the mid to late 1990s. For the sake of this story, we'll call him Jack. After years of being taken for granted and treated as a technological dinosaur by all the UNIX programmers and Client/Server programmers and website developers, Jack was finally getting some respect. He'd become a private consultant specializing in Year 2000 conversions. He was working short-term assignments for prestige companies, traveling all over the world on different assignments. He was working 70 and 80 and even 90 hour weeks, but it was worth it.

      Several years of this relentless, mind-numbing work had taken its toll on Jack. He had problems sleeping and began having anxiety dreams about the Year 2000. It had reached a point where even the thought of the year 2000 made him nearly violent. He must have suffered some sort of breakdown, because all he could think about was how he could avoid the year 2000 and all that came with it.

      Jack decided to contact a company that specialized in cryogenics. He made a deal to have himself frozen until March 15th, 2000. This was a very expensive process and totally automated. He was thrilled. The next thing he would know is he'd wake up in the year 2000; after the New Year celebrations and computer debacles; after the leap day. Nothing else to worry about except getting on with his life.

      He was put into his cryogenic receptacle, the technicians set the revive date, he was given injections to slow his heartbeat to a bare minimum, and that was that. The next thing that Jack saw was an enormous and very modern room filled with excited people. They were all shouting "I can't believe it " and "It's a miracle" and "He's alive ". There were cameras (unlike any he'd ever seen) and equipment that looked like it came out of a science fiction movie.

      Someone who was obviously a spokesperson for the group stepped forward. Jack couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "It is over?" he asked. "Is 2000 already here? Are all the millennial parties and promotions and crises all over and done with?"

      The spokesman explained that there had been a problem with the programming of the timer on Jack's cryogenic receptacle, it hadn't been year 2000 compliant. It was actually eight thousand years later, not the year 2000. But the spokesman told Jack that he shouldn't get excited; someone important wanted to speak to him.

      Suddenly a wall-sized projection screen displayed the image of a man that looked very much like Bill Gates. This man was Prime Minister of Earth. He told Jack not to be upset. That this was a wonderful time to be alive. That there was world peace and no more starvation. That the space program had been reinstated and there were colonies on the moon and on Mars. That technology had advanced to such a degree that everyone had virtual reality interfaces which allowed them to contact anyone else on the planet, or to watch any entertainment, or to hear any music recorded anywhere.

      "That sounds terrific," said Jack. "But I'm curious. Why is everybody so interested in me?"

      "Well," said the Prime Minister. "The year 10000 is just around the corner, and it says in your files that you know COBOL".


    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ziggyzaggy ( 552814 )
      You're not looking in the right places, here's 4,500 COBOL jobs http://www.indeed.com/q-Cobol-jobs.html [indeed.com] . Major city newspapers list them also. Latest COBOL is COBOL 2002, which includes object orientation (already de facto standard since early 90s by the major compiler vendors), web and XML extensions, locale sensitive processing, cobol javabeans. The next version is shaping up already, dynamic tables, structured constants, ISO 8601:2000 dates. Propose new extensions for the next version of COBOL
    • within my company there are some internal vacancies for COBOL programmers, they need about 10 of them. Compared to my current job the work actually seemed interesting, so i asked an older colleague if i should look into it further, his suggestion? "start updating your resume"

      The company i am starting with next year also has a COBOL group, they gave it the most brilliant euphemism for a name "proven technologies"

      So there still is work, but upon closer examination, i would have to be mental to go down that ro

  • by ewg ( 158266 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:24PM (#34575678)

    Laugh it up, kids! Your favorite language is next.

    • J2EE certainly is the COBOL of the OO world. Just as Perl 5 is the COBOL of scripting languages.

      • J2EE certainly is the COBOL of the OO world. Just as Perl 5 is the COBOL of scripting languages.

        I thought that ooCOBOL is the COBOL of the OO world...

  • "Celebrates"? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Haedrian ( 1676506 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:27PM (#34575726)

    Is "Celebrates" the correct word to use in this context?

    • by Thud457 ( 234763 )
      It would be more sensitive to have a exhibit to commemorate the victims of COBOL and it's eventual glorious defeat.
    • by bsDaemon ( 87307 )

      I think it's supposed to be "commemorates," like when we commemorate Pearl Harbour Day.. Ironically, both those anniversaries fall within a day of each other, and both shall equally live in infamy...

    • Re:"Celebrates"? (Score:5, Informative)

      by westlake ( 615356 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @02:03PM (#34576292)

      Is "Celebrates" the correct word to use in this context?


      It is 1960 and your Fortune 500 clients want programs they can read.

      Programs they can trust.

      Their area of expertise is corporate accounting, business methods and procedures.

      Practices which have evolved over hundreds of years and practices which the newly minted mainframe programmer is not going to master overnight.

      COBOL syntax has often been criticized for its verbosity. However, proponents are quick to note that this was an intentional part of the language design and considered by many to be one of the COBOL's strengths. One of the design goals of COBOL was for COBOL code to be readable and understandable to non-programmers such as managers, supervisors and users. This is why COBOL has a very English-like syntax and structural elements--including: nouns, verbs, clauses, sentences, sections, and divisions.
      Consequently, COBOL is considered by at least one source to be "the most readable, understandable and self-documenting programming language in use today...." Not only does this readability generally assist the maintenance process but the older a program gets the more valuable this readability becomes."
      Additionally, traditional COBOL is a simple language with a limited scope of function (with no pointers, no user-defined types, and no user-defined functions), encouraging a straightforward coding style. This has made it well-suited to its primary domain of business computing--where the program complexity lies in the business rules that need to be encoded rather than sophisticated algorithms or data structures. And because the standard does not belong to any particular vendor, programs written in COBOL are highly portable. The language can be used on a wide variety of hardware platforms and operating systems. And the rigid hierarchical structure restricts the definition of external references to the Environment Division, which simplifies platform changes.
      COBOL [wikipedia.org]

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        This makes it a pain for programmers and still unreadable for managers.

        It is the sort of compromise that makes something no one likes.

    • Perhaps in the sense of 'holding a wake'.
  • Sweet (Score:5, Funny)

    by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @01:29PM (#34575758)

    They also announced a COBOL App Store so users could easily find and install useful applications. The inaugural app was "Angry Birds" for the Honeywell 200. Ordering this app will have a box with the punch cards delivered to your house, and a complete installation manual. The second offering was a fart app for the UNIVAC series.

  • By the 1970s, COBOL had become the preferred programming language for commercial data processing. Since then, Java, C #, and other languages have taken over many of its functions.

    They slightly skipped a few things between COBOL and C#, lol.

  • Celebrate COBOL? Why? Ewwwww...

    Coming up next, celebrations of MS-DOS, Lotus Notes, and the Mac?

    • by Rary ( 566291 ) *

      Celebrate COBOL? Why? Ewwwww...

      Coming up next, celebrations of MS-DOS, Lotus Notes, and the Mac?

      Because, unlike those other things, businesses are still using COBOL. ;)

      • i so wish that was true.

        Compared to working with lotus notes, outlook seems like a heavenly savior, the guy responsible for notes should be shot

  • C ey!! FORTRAN is older (and cooler) than COBOL
    FORTRAN .GT. 50
    FORTRAN = 54.0 + ABIT
    COBOL = WHIP + R + SNAP + R

  • COBOL is for morons. -- E.W. Dijkstra
    • by sycodon ( 149926 )

      I wonder if he knew that the system that cut his checks was almost certianly running on COBOL.

  • in between the History of Cardboard Armor and X-Ray based shoe store gages.
  • by thodelu ( 1748596 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @02:34PM (#34576866)
    In The Tao of Programming: The Tao gave birth to machine language. Machine language gave birth to the assembler. The assembler gave birth to the compiler. Now there are ten thousand languages. Each language has its purpose, however humble. Each language expresses the Yin and Yang of software. Each language has its place within the Tao. But do not program in COBOL if you can avoid it.
  • by xanthos ( 73578 ) <xanthos@toERDOSke.com minus math_god> on Thursday December 16, 2010 @02:35PM (#34576900)

    Yeah, it is real easy to get all snarky about COBOL. I have always hated it even though it was a popular language when I was in school (late 70's). My CS department had three separate non-overlapping courses you could take.

    The thing is that just about any programmer, even if they don't know COBOL, could go in and change it. COBOL is readable. The record based functionality is simple to comprehend. Something written 30 years ago is still running because there is nothing wrong with it. It does what its supposed to do. It was the perfect solution to the most important business problems of its day, and that legacy is why it is still around while other languages of its era are not.

    Should new programs be written in it? HELL NO!!!! The problem set to which COBOL applies is pretty well solved. The new problems require new solutions.


    • Well, gee... I must be imagining the over 100 new COBOL programs I've written over the past seven years. You see, I do this for a living, and make a pretty decent living at that. I work for an insurance company. The policy and billing management systems are implemented in COBOL on an IBM mainframe, and if we want to keep pace with our competitors, new development is essential. Recently we upgraded the web interface external clients use to access our billing data. While that involved a lot of web desig

      • by jonwil ( 467024 )

        You arent writing a new system in COBOL. You are adding to an existing system.

        The OPs point was that the only reason to write new COBOL code is if you have existing COBOL code you need to work with.

  • Obviously nobody at the Smithsonian ever had to write a program in COBOL!

    I have a story. I once worked in a factory where the computer systems were written in COBOL, and it, to put it politely, sucked. We needed data to manage our jobs in the shop and buying requests to fill our orders but there was no way to get the data the way we needed it. After surviving a layoff I inherited a PC with a 3270 terminal emulator card and proceeded to reprogram the board to extract information off of the on-line CICS sy

    • by sycodon ( 149926 )

      And which report are they STILL using today? Most likely not the one in the "for real" dead languge Pascal.

      • by hAckz0r ( 989977 )
        Turbo Pascal and Microsoft BASIC were the only choices back then, other than assembler. At least with Pascal you could add in some mixed assembler to work with interrupts and low level BIOS logic. Try that with MS BASIC from that era. C compilers for the PC came out over the following year but they were a little unstable. I bought 'both' books on the C Language in preparation for some real programming, and later when it came out I bought my first C compiler (Borland Turbo C) for the PC and rewrote the libra
  • by wandazulu ( 265281 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @03:00PM (#34577428)

    Cobol might be a pretty easy joke for obsolescence, but remember that Cobol was written by a woman [wikipedia.org] in a time where the industry was far more male dominated than it is today.

    Though I've never programmed in Cobol, it made a big impression on me as a kid to show that anybody could program a computer, or use a computer to create something cool.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Because if a woman could do anyone can!
      Wow that doesn't come out right.
      Grace Hopper got an early admission to Vassar at the age of 17! She would have gotten in at the age of 16 but her Latin scores where too low..
      She got degrees in physics and mathematics at Vassar, Masters in both at Yale, then a PH.d. in Mathematics from Yale.
      She was not just anybody. Frankly she would make most us look like low grade morons. If she was 30 today Google, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, and Facebook would all be after her. She was

    • by fishexe ( 168879 )

      Cobol might be a pretty easy joke for obsolescence, but remember that Cobol was written by a woman [wikipedia.org] in a time where the industry was far more male dominated than it is today.

      This was surely an impressive achievement. And for 1959, COBOL was surely an impressive language. It's no disrespect to Hopper to dis COBOL based on the standards of the '70s, or '80s, or '00s, however. That's a dis to the folks who should know better, and yet continue implementing the damn thing.

  • should be included into the Smithsonian! They're still using COBOL!
    Unluckily, this is not a joke.
  • by tm2b ( 42473 ) on Thursday December 16, 2010 @04:49PM (#34579450) Journal
    Did they talk about the object-oriented version of COBOL? It's named ADD 1 TO COBOL GIVING COBOL.
  • Despite all (justified!) COBOL bashing, you'll have to concede that a 50 years old COBOL compiler could (had to) run on a VERY modest amount of RAM... something that isn't immediately obvious, considering that compilers of current languages are true resource hogs in comparison.
    • considering that compilers of current languages are true resource hogs in comparison.

      In many cases this is due to significantly better optimizations produced by the compilers, however. E.g. in case of C++, modern compilers do full program optimizations - that's millions of lines of code for large products - analyzing code that is sometimes removed from each other by multiple levels of function calls to aggressively inline, do smart register allocation tricks etc, which give very noticeable performance improvements. Compilers of COBOL age (not just for COBOL, but for other stuff) were much m

  • There is a fine line between Cobol and Data entry. I wonder what the data / code ratio is for cobol vs. other languages.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford