Fortran was devised at IBM in the 1950s and was the first high level language; it has been described as a cross between pidgin English and algebra. It revolutionised programming at a time when programmers worked in binary, setting up strings of ones and zeroes, or at best in very low-level assembly languages which still needed programmers to give memory addresses of data fields.
"The efficiency of Fortran compilers has always been a major feature," said Peter Crouch, chairman of the BCS Fortran Specialist Group.
"They generated programs that ran as efficiently - or very nearly as efficiently - as the ones painstakingly hand coded over days or weeks by the programming elite. This led to huge investment in the Fortran code.
"Fortran was the first programming language to be standardised, in 1966. This has meant good portability of programs between computers. Its long history has led to the development of extensive mathematical and engineering libraries for high performance computing on a wide range of computers."
Users include the Meteorological Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Atomic Weapons Establishment, oil companies, the aircraft and automobile industries, engineering consultancies and scientific institutions. It is also used in the finance sector to do complex calculations to analyse market data.
Crouch estimated that there are several thousand organisations in Europe using Fortran applications, although not all are using it to develop new programs.
After the standardisation in 1966 there was a minor revision in 1977 and then a larger gap until another standardisation in 1990, with a further minor revision in 1995. These changes brought in features which extended Fortran's scope, but the long gaps meant that it slipped from the forefront of development and C, C++ and the object-oriented approach took prominence.
Fortran champions believe the language has a wider range of facilities for scientific calculations and it is better in important areas, notably for handling multi-dimension arrays. They argue that it not only produces highly reliable programs but is easier to write and maintain: engineers, scientists and other non-programmers can write their own programs.
The new version includes features to support object-oriented programming, a standard way of interfacing with C and of accessing different operating systems. "We now have a language that has been redeveloped for the 21st century," Crouch said.
BCS Fortran Specialist Group www.bcs.org.uk/siggroup/fortran
This was first published in February 2004