June 21, 1967: Computer languages COBOL and ADPAC revolutionize business world

The digital revolution was underway. A new computer language, ADPAC, joined COBOL and RPG in the race to transform the business world.

First issue of Computerworld
Computerworld Volume 1, Issue 1 published on June 21, 1967

Most young computer scientists have no idea what a line of COBOL lookƒs like, even though there are an estimated 200 billion lines of COBOL in use today, according to some accounts. COBOL, recognized today as one of the first commercial programming languages, was developed in the 1960s through funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Since its inception, it has been harshly criticized by the computer science community for having verbose syntax and lacking important features. Just a few years after COBOL emerged, rival business-oriented languages like RPG and ADPAC made headlines as competitors to COBOL. However, policies instituted by the U.S. Department of Defense ensured that COBOL remained the dominant force in the business world. Most critically, by 1960, the DoD refused to lease or purchase any computer without a COBOL compiler.

In 1967, the front page of the launch issue of Computerworld magazine featured an article suggesting that a new language called ADPAC could be technically superior to COBOL. One company interviewed at the time, STAT-TAB, reported that ADPAC had drastically cut programming time and compilation times compared to COBOL. A simple technical study was conducted to compare the two languages. The same program took 172 statements and 38 seconds to compile in ADPAC, but 665 statements and over an hour to compile in COBOL. ADPAC was said to have achieved these milestones by eliminating the worst features of COBOL and adding in important missing ones.

College computer science programs haven’t taught COBOL to several generations of programmers, but billions of lines of COBOL programs are still running today. COBOL has recently been in the news as financial and government institutions see their aging programmers with expertise in COBOL retire from the workforce, widening an ever-growing skills gap. Some delays in the distribution of unemployment benefits and stimulus payments during the COVID-19 pandemic were due to issues in finding programmers to assist in updating COBOL systems

–By Kathleen Esfahany