COBOL Guide: History, Origin, and More

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COBOL Guide: History, Origin, and More

Four Facts about COBOL

  • COBOL was one of the first programming languages designed for use in business and finance. When the language developed in the 1950s, it did not get attention from computer scientists who were more interested in developing resources for math and science applications.
  • Grace Hopper is known as the Mother of COBOL. She developed the FLOW-MATIC programming language that was the basis for the new software.
  • The US Department of Defense was one of the primary supporters of COBOL. This agency wanted a portable programming language because of its growing investment in computer mainframes at the time.
  • By 1970, COBOL was the most used programming language in the world. Banks, businesses, and government entities depended on the language’s data processing abilities.

What is COBOL?: Explained

In the 1950s, most computer science work focused on the potential for using calculating power to benefit math and science projects. However, financial institutions saw the potential for computer applications in the business world.

In 1959, CODASYL, the Committee on Data Systems Languages, gathered to develop a language designed specifically for business applications. After a comparative analysis, they determined the three main traits needed in the new language.

Quick Facts

Creator (person)
Grace Hooper
Original Price
Operating System
modern maiframes
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  • Readability: It had to have a readable syntax so that non-programmers might understand it.
  • Portability: It needed to let programs travel from computer to computer.
  • Flexibility: The language needed to be adaptable to changing needs improved technology.

The resulting computer programming language was known as Common Business-Oriented Language. The first version of COBOL was a high-level procedural language that could only handle numbers and strings as datatypes. Adoption by the Department of Defense and its use with IBM mainframes turned the language into a fixture in the computer industry.

How To Use COBOL

COBOL is a high-level computer programming language with a readable syntax. Before its program runs, the programmer must use a compiler to convert the English syntax program into a low-level machine language.

Although modern versions of COBOL can work with object-oriented programming, the language was designed to be procedural. Writing a program in COBOL is much like creating a step-by-step recipe. Each step in the process tells the computer what to do with the data.

How To Learn COBOL

For modern programmers, a comparative study of languages will quickly yield the limits of COBOL for new applications. Scripting tools like Python, JavaScript, or C++ offer greater flexibility and fit better in modern computing environments.

However, computer systems from companies like IBM allow for backward compatibility, so it still runs many programs in the business world. One of the current challenges in computer science is that COBOL programmers are reaching retirement age. People familiar with this computer programming language are needed to maintain legacy programs.

A student familiar with other programming languages should have little trouble picking up COBOL. There are several online resources such as the Open Mainframe Project that offer tutorials that teach the basics of the language. Someone who wants to develop COBOL expertise will also need to understand working with a compiler and legacy IBM mainframe environments.

The Difference Between COBOL vs FORTRAN

COBOL and FORTRAN are two of the oldest computer programming languages still in use today. FORTRAN premiered in 1957 as a language designed for scientific calculations. COBOL emerged a couple of years later in response to the need for a business-oriented resource. Both tools are high-level languages that require a compiler.

The stated purposes of the two languages determined their structure. FORTRAN is a free-form, generic language that allows for a variety of complex calculations. Its lack of structure makes it less readable than other programming languages. However, it was a useful tool for quickly creating programs that would be used in experiments.

COBOL uses an English-like syntax to promote readability. It was designed so that employees in the financial world could understand programs and procedures without a great deal of training. The language was ideal for creating business operations that would be performed repeatedly.

The difference in the intended audience also explains the longevity of the two languages. COBOL programs have become embedded in many businesses and government departments, so COBOL programmers are still needed. FORTRAN is sometimes used for complex physics calculations, but most people in the scientific community have moved to more advanced languages like Python or C++.

COBOL Release History

In its more than sixty years of existence, COBOL has gone through several revisions.


CODASYL designed the first version of COBOL in 1959. The new computer programming language had strong support from the US Department of Defense to meet its growing data processing needs.


The first revision involved corrections to how the language handled logic flows.


By 1965, COBOL was growing in popularity as a business and finance tool. This revision included resources for working with tables.


As COBOL use increased, local programmers created variations to meet their needs. In 1968, COBOL 68 was an effort to standardize the language across the industry. The American National Standard Institute would later approve this version as the standard for commercial use.


In the 1970s, COBOL was one of the most frequently used programming languages in the world. COBOL 74 was another attempt by ANSI to standardize the tool. This version included new file organization features.


A comparative examination of programming languages in the 1980s showed that the program was falling behind other emerging languages. COBOL 85 included the ability to create nested subprograms within a procedural framework. Commands like EVALUATE, a switch statement, and CONTINUE, a non-operation statement, increased its processing capabilities.

COBOL 2002

COBOL 2002 added features that were standard in other programming languages. This version incorporated object-oriented programming tools like classes and methods. It also allowed programmers to create user-defined functions and employ recursive techniques.

COBOL 2014

The latest revision of COBOL is assumed to be the last version. Even with object-oriented programming in place, developers tend to favor more modern tools. COBOL 2014 includes changes that allow it to work more easily in hybrid environments.

COBOL: End of Development

The program is still in use, but it is seen as a legacy language. The need for COBOL programmers often stems from the desire to maintain the software until it can migrate to a modern language.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is COBOL?

COBOL is a high-level computer programming language developed in 1959. The English-style syntax and procedural model made programs readable to users outside the computer science field. COBOL requires a compiler to turn its high-level instructions into readable machine language.

What is COBOL used for as a programming language?

CODASYL designed COBOL for data processing in the business and financial industries. The language has also seen heavy use internationally for creating administrative tools in governmental departments.

What does COBOL stand for?

COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language.

When was COBOL developed?

COBOL was developed in 1959 by the Committee for Data Systems Languages.

Is COBOL still used?

COBOL is still in active use in legacy software. Businesses and government entities run applications built on a COBOL foundation. These groups will need programmers with knowledge of the language until they can update or replace the software with an up-to-date product.

Who developed COBOL?

The Committee for Data Systems Languages met in 1959 and included representatives from the Department of Defense, IBM, and several other technology companies. The US Department of Defense provided the financial backing for the development of COBOL.

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