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What is Fortran?

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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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Fortran is an imperative computer programming language. Once written as FORTRAN, the programming language is also considered general purpose and procedural. It was developed in the 1950s by International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and was intended for use in scientific and engineering related applications. Since its design, Fortran has been steadily used for scientific and numerical computing, especially in such areas as computational sciences and climate modeling. In fact, it is the most commonly used numerical programming language in existence.

Some speculate that Fortran achieved its popularity because it was designed before many of the other major languages. Others assert that its wide use is due to the gradual adding on and development of features vital to science and engineering users. Perhaps equally important is the fact that Fortran maintains its compatibility with older versions, adding new components, instead of eliminating outdated features. A good deal of its popularity may have been due to the production of compilers capable of handling faster code, making it especially suited to scientific use.

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A team of IBM programmers, led by John Backus, is credited with collaborating for the development of Fortran, introducing the first compiler in 1957. It was created for an IBM 704 computer. Fortran, with its control structures and input/output components, enjoyed quick popularity. Soon, the team introduced compilers designed for use with other IBM computer models. Within a short period of time, other manufacturers felt compelled to create FORTRAN compilers to suit their own computers, resulting in dozens of compilers by the early 1960s.

Unfortunately, the creation of so many different compilers led to incompatibility. In 1966, this issue was tackled when an American national standard was formed for the programming language. However, this did not fully stem the tide of variations. Soon, further standardization was needed. To meet this need, Fortran 77 was designed.

One of the features that makes Fortran stand out among other computer programming languages is its easy portability. It is also considered simple to master and straightforward. It is not necessary to have a background in computers to be able to learn and use Fortran. The fact that it is easy to learn doesn’t make it less capable, however. It can be used effectively on sizable applications.

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Logicfest
Post 1

What's incredible is how long FORTRAN has hung on and is still being used. Computer languages seem to go in and out of vogue, but there's been a place for both FORTRAN and COBOL programmers for a few decades now. I should have paid more attention when learning those two languages when I was in college in the 1980s -- I might make a heck of a lot more money now!

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