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A Brief History and Evolution of Modern Programming Languages

The humble computer has a long and rich history. In fact, the history of the modern computer stretches all the way back to the Victorian era. Then, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage conceptualized a steam-powered ‘Difference Engine.’ At the same time, his accomplice Ada Lovelace conceptualized the world’s first computer programming language.

Unfortunately, a working Difference Engine never made it into production. Moreover, it wasn’t until 100-years later in 1936, that computing and development of programming languages as we know them today really got started.

The First Computers and Early Programming

The world’s first true programmable computers were the Z1 created by German Konrad Zuse, and the Turing Machine, created by Alan Turing. In the beginning, though, both computers used a basic binary machine language, not an easy to interact with programming language.

Plankalkül and Fortran

The first high-level programming language was Plankalkül. Created by Konrad Zuse, Plankalkül was designed specifically for engineering purposes.

Translated as “A Formal System for Planning,” Plankalkül was capable of goal-directed execution, and used a data structure capable or representing 2D and 3D geometric structures. However, Plankalkül never became commercially available.

The first programming language which did become commercially available was, Fortran.


Developed by IBM in 1956, quickly became the preferred programming language in the emerging computer industry. Like Plankalkül, Fortran was predominantly used for engineering purposes. However, adaptability made it possible to use Fortran in a myriad of use cases.

l Fortran was used to model weather patterns.

l Development of Fortran continued for six decades, and Fortran is still used to benchmark modern supercomputers.

l Ongoing development of Fortran paralleled the development of compiling technology and early computers themselves.

Fortran as a Precursor to Today’s Most Common Programming Languages

During the 1950s and 1960s, Fortran was instrumental in setting the stage for the development of several other programming languages. Just a few of these included LISP, ALGOL, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language), and BASIC. Of these, BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) has had the most lasting legacy on programming as we know it.

BASIC and the Emergence of C

By 1959, most computer programmers never touched the binary code which computers use to communicate. It was already more efficient to use programming languages like COBOL. However, most programming languages were still use case-specific. This changed in 1964, with the creation of BASIC.

Created by students at Dartmouth College, BASIC made programming easy to get to grips with for non-technically minded computer users. BASIC is, therefore, famous as becoming the first programming language used on early Apple and Microsoft PCs. Moreover, shortly after the development of BASIC, the first incarnation of today’s C programming language was developed.

C and C++

C was created by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs. Designed for portability, C uses a straightforward compiler. This makes it possible to run C on several different computer architectures, without significant modification. Because of this, C was used to write the first Unix operating systems. C and C++ developed in 1983, is also still used today in all Linux OS distributions.

1990s Programming Language Innovations

Development of increasingly affordable computer systems resulted in the 1990s, in the release of personal computers. For the first time, everyday home users started to use and be enthused by computers. As a consequence, several new programming languages started to be developed.


Python is a highly extendable programming language, which was developed in 1991 by Guido van Rossum. Today Python is used it several top consumer tech products like the Google search and YouTube.


PHP is the programing language of the modern Internet. Developed in 1995, PHP is used in web development and is estimated to currently run on over 20-million websites worldwide.


Java is a programming language first released in 1995, which is designed for portability. Java applications can be executed in several different computer hardware and operating system environments. Today, Java is used on an estimated 1 billion computers worldwide.

Ruby on Rails

Ruby on Rails first emerged in the early 2000s and has since become integral to modern web app development. At its core, Ruby on Rails facilitates the use of several web standards for data transfer and user interfacing.

New Programming Languages

Programming and modern computing are constantly evolving. Development of new programming languages, therefore, continues to this day. Just some notable mentions include new languages like Crystal, Elixir, and Rust, the latter which may one day replace commonly used programming languages like C and C++.

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