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 looks like, even though there are an estimated 200 billion lines of COBOL in use today, according to some accounts. In the 1960s, COBOL emerged as the first commercial programming language. Since its inception, it has been harshly criticized by the computer science community for its verbose syntax and its lack of important features. Just a few years later, rival business-oriented languages like RPG and ADPAC were making headlines as competitors to COBOL. However, policies instituted by the US Department of Defense ensured that COBOL remained the dominant force in the business world. Most critically, the DoD refused to lease or purchase any computer without a COBOL compiler.

By 1967, a language called ADPAC made the front page of the launch issue of Computerworld for its technical superiority over COBOL. One company interviewed at the time, STAT-TAB, reported that ADPAC had drastically cut programming time and compilation times. A simple technical study was conducted to highlight ADPAC’s superiority. 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 COBOL is still with us today and has recently been in the news. Financial institutions and government services are facing an ever-growing skills gap as the small number of programmers with expertise in COBOL exit the workforce. In fact, 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