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Friday, July 6, 2007

History of programming

History of programming

Wired plug board for an IBM 402 Accounting Machine.
Wired plug board for an IBM 402 Accounting Machine.

The earliest programmable machine (that is a machine whose behavior can be controlled by changes to a "program") was Al-Jazari's programmable humanoid robot in 1206. Al-Jazari's robot was originally a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. His mechanism had a a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bump into little levers that operate the percussion. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.[2]

The Jacquard Loom, developed in 1801, is often quoted as a source of prior art. The machine used a series of pasteboard cards with holes punched in them. The hole pattern represented the pattern that the loom had to follow in weaving cloth. The loom could produce entirely different weaves using different sets of cards. The use of punched cards was also adopted by Charles Babbage around 1830, to control his Analytical Engine.

This innovation was later refined by Herman Hollerith who, in 1896 founded the Tabulating Machine Company (which became IBM). He invented the Hollerith punched card, the card reader, and the key punch machine. These inventions were the foundation of the modern information processing industry. The addition of a plug-board to his 1906 Type I Tabulator allowed it to do different jobs without having to be rebuilt (the first step toward programming). By the late 1940s there were a variety of plug-board programmable machines, called unit record equipment, to perform data processing tasks (card reading). The early computers were also programmed using plug-boards.

A box of punch cards with several program decks.
A box of punch cards with several program decks.

The invention of the Von Neumann architecture allowed programs to be stored in computer memory. Early programs had to be painstakingly crafted using the instructions of the particular machine, often in binary notation. Every model of computer would be likely to need different instructions to do the same task. Later assembly languages were developed that let the programmer specify each instruction in a text format, entering abbreviations for each operation code instead of a number and specifying addresses in symbolic form (e.g. ADD X, TOTAL). In 1954 Fortran, the first higher level programming language, was invented. This allowed programmers to specify calculations by entering a formula directly (e.g. Y = X*2 + 5*X + 9). The program text, or source, was converted into machine instructions using a special program called a compiler. Many other languages were developed, including ones for commercial programming, such as COBOL. Programs were mostly still entered using punch cards or paper tape. (See computer programming in the punch card era). By the late-60s, data storage devices and computer terminals became inexpensive enough so programs could be created by typing directly into the computers. Text editors were developed that allowed changes and corrections to be made much more easily than with punch cards.

As time has progressed computers have made giant leaps in the area of processing power. This has brought about newer programming languages that are more abstracted from the underlying hardware. Although these more abstracted languages require additional overhead, in most cases the huge increase in speed of modern computers has brought about little performance decrease compared to earlier counterparts. The benefits of these more abstracted languages is that they allow both an easier learning curve for people less familiar with the older lower-level programming languages, and they also allow a more experienced programmer to develop simple applications quickly. Despite these benefits, large complicated programs, and programs that are more dependent on speed still require the faster and relatively lower-level languages with todays hardware. (The same concerns were raised about the original Fortran language.)

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, programming was an attractive career in most developed countries. Some forms of programming have been increasingly subject to offshore outsourcing (importing software and services from other countries, usually at a lower wage), making programming career decisions in developed countries more complicated, while increasing economic opportunities in less developed areas. It is unclear how far this trend will continue and how deeply it will impact programmer wages and opportunities. Despite the "outsourcing trend" it can be argued that some of the richest persons on the globe are programmers by profession. Examples: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Larry Page (Google), Hasso Plattner (SAP) and so on. Programming is clearly a leading-edge craftsmanship that continues to reward its practitioners both in countries such as India and developed countries like the USA or Germany.

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