“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for” is a version of this famous quote attributed to Grace Hopper, often referred to as the Mother of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Even though she played a significant part in the history of computers for her many technical accomplishments, particularly for her role in the development of the COBOL Language, there were other women who were involved in COBOL’s history as well.
For example, Mary K Hawes is another key figure, who reportedly recognized the need for a Common Business Language in Accounting and initiated the process to develop the COBOL language. She is an often-forgotten woman in COBOL history who is overshadowed by the later significant contributions of Grace Hopper.
How the Idea Started
In March 1959, Mary Hawes was working as a senior product planning analyst for the Electro Data Division of Burroughs Corporation, a manufacturer of business equipment. According to information recorded in Proposing COBOL, the National Museum of American History, at that time, she called for “computer users and manufacturers to create a new computer language—one that could run on different brands of computers and perform accounting tasks such as payroll calculations, inventory control, and records of credits and debits.”
How it Developed
Per Jean Sammet’s book, History of Programming Languages (1981), Mary Hawes definitely made the first request that brought about an initial meeting in April 1959. This first meeting resulted in seeking sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Charles Philips, an employee at the DOD, agreed to the plan to start meetings in the Pentagon. In May 1959, approximately 40 representatives of computer users and computer manufacturers met and formed the Short-Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL). Further, according to the History of Programming Languages, Mary Hawes allegedly chaired the data descriptions subcommittee in the Short-Range Committee.
How it Became COBOL
During the later part of 1959 (per Proposing COBOL, the National Museum of American History) planning groups met in New York and Boston to prepare specifications for the new programming language they named COBOL. They modeled the new language on earlier computer languages for business: Remington Rand UNIVAC’s FLOW-MATIC, already in use; and IBM’s Commercial Translator, not yet implemented. FLOW-MATIC originated with a group led by Grace Hopper, who advocated for computer programs that could be easily read and understood. Commands in FLOW-MATIC and COBOL were written to resemble ordinary English.
In Sept 1959, Charles Philips gave the following positive comment: “The Department of Defense was pleased to undertake this project; in fact, we were embarrassed that the idea for such a common language had not had its origin by that time in Defense since we would benefit so greatly from the success of such a project” (Sammett, 1981)
In conclusion, Mary K. Hawes can be credited with the origin of COBOL. Not a small accolade, considering the language has persisted for over 60 years and is still widely in use today.
Mary Hawes Co-Authored the Following Books:
- Optimized code generation from extended-entry decision tables published in September 1971
- Feature analysis of generalized database management systems: CODASYL Systems Committee published in May 1971
- A survey of generalized database management systems published in May 1969.
- “Burrough’s Future in Electronics”. www.smecc.org. Retrieved 2016-11-08.
- “Proposing COBOL”. National Museum of American History. 2012-04-04. Retrieved 2020-07-25.
- Sammet, Jean (1981). History of Programming Languages. Academic Press. pp. 199–243.