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posted by Fnord666 on Saturday May 16 2020, @02:39AM   Printer-friendly
from the near-the-root-of-the-programming-language-tree dept.

ALGOL 60 at 60: The Greatest Computer Language You've (Probably) Never Used:

2020 marks 60 years since ALGOL 60 laid the groundwork for a multitude of computer languages.

The Register spoke to The National Museum of Computing's Peter Onion and Andrew Herbert to learn a bit more about the good old days of punch tapes.

ALGOL 60 was the successor to ALGOL 58, which debuted in 1958. ALGOL 58 had introduced the concept of code blocks (replete with begin and end delimiting pairs), but ALGOL 60 took these starting points of structured programming and ran with them, giving rise to familiar faces such as Pascal and C, as well as the likes of B and Simula.

"In the 1950s most code was originally written in machine code or assembly code," said Herbert, former director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, with every computer having its own particular twist on things.

[..] "Fortran," said Herbert, "emerged as the first real programming language for scientific and numeric work. That convinced people that having higher-level languages (as they called them then – they were pretty primitive by modern standards) made programmers more productive."

[...] "And a bunch of people thought you could do better."

[...] One group started on the design of what was then called an "Algorithmic Language": a language for writing algorithms. The output, in 1958, described the language "ALGOL 58". However, as engineers began to create compilers for the new system, they found "all kinds of things hadn't really been thought about or worked through properly," recalled Herbert.

[...] Eventually, Herbert told us, "they published the ALGOL 60 report, which is the baseline that everyone then worked to."

[...] "People were sorting out some of the things that we now take for granted like ideas in structured programming, data structures, data types," he added.

[...] Alas, those seeking a handy-dandy "HELLO WORLD" example will be disappointed. The Achilles' heel of the language that would go on to inspire so many others was that it lacked standard input/output capabilities.

[...] Oh dear. The omission pretty much did for vendor independence as manufacturers naturally went their own way, leaving large chunks of code incompatible between systems. There were also elements of ALGOL 60 that were open to interpretation, leaving it a little compromised from the start.

While ALGOL ploughed its furrow, Fortran continued to be developed in parallel. "People in the Fortran world," explained Herbert, "saw ideas in ALGOL they quite liked and brought them across." As the decades passed, Fortran remained the centre of gravity for scientific computing while ALGOL became more of an academic language, used for teaching computer science ideas.

[...] The story of ALGOL 60 is not so much of the language's eventual fate, but also of those that it inspired. ALGOL W, based on a proposal for ALGOL X, by Niklaus Wirth and QuickSort creator Tony Hoare would go on to inspire Wirth's Pascal and Modula-2. Pascal's influence continues to be felt today.

ALGOL 60 also heavily influenced the Combined Programming Language (CPL), developed in the 1960s but not implemented until the following decade. CPL in turn led to Basic CPL (BCPL), from which B descended. The B language was further developed to become C.

[...] As for taking the ALGOL 60 itself out for a spin today, there are a few options for those not fortunate enough to have an Elliott 803 or 903 to hand. MARST will translate ALGOL 60 to C or one can get a feel for the whole 803 experience via a simulator.

This humble scribe did not have occasion to use ALGOL, but did spent the better part of two years programming PASCAL professionally. At a time when it seemed all other languages had a limited — and finite — set of data types, PASCAL was different. It encouraged the creation of whatever data types and data structures that best matched the task at a hand.

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  • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Sunday May 17 2020, @08:33AM

    by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday May 17 2020, @08:33AM (#995281) Journal

    I don't know if the original Pascal was ever implemented on a system with graphics abilities. Standard Pascal implementations were exceptionally rare; almost every implementation deviated in significant ways. In particular, useful but missing functionality was always added. For example, standard Pascal has terrible string handling (yes, worse even than C). But about every Pascal implementation added proper string handling.

    Note also that what I wrote refers to the original Pascal standard. There was also an Extended Pascal standard which had far more features (including bitwise operators), but to my knowledge the only Pascal compiler that ever implemented it was gpc.

    Anyway, as I said, in Turbo Pascal there were definitely bit-wise and/or/not, as well as shifts (the latter were useful even in non-low-level programs, as a faster way to multiply/divide by powers of 2). So you could have implemented your graphics engine there (OTOH Turbo Pascal had a graphics library as part of the installation, so maybe you wouldn't have had the need to begin with).

    Anyway, I think there's a confusion on your side about the set type: It has absolutely nothing to do with setters/getters.

    For example, a one byte large type with bit-level access could be specified as

    type BinaryByte = set of 0..7;
    To set a variable of that type it to a certain bit pattern, you'd just enumerate the bits to be set:
    primes := [2,3,5,7];

    You can also set or clear individual bits:

    flags := flags + [3,5]; { set bits 3 and 5 }
    flags := flags - [SpecialFlag]; { clear SpecialFlag, which must be a constant or variable with value in the correct range }

    However there were no bit shifts on that type, so it might not have been suitable for your graphics engine. But then, Pascal was originally meant as teaching language, and any implementation targeted at actual software development did support the bitwise operators anyway. It's just that for most of the uses that you'd use them in C, Pascal already had a proper abstraction to offer. But sure, if you do truly low-level stuff (and a graphics engine is definitely low-level stuff), you need access to low-level functionality. It's just that the majority of code written isn't for low-level stuff (or else almost nobody would ever have programmed in Java, Perl or Python), and in a language not meant for low-level functionality development it is absolutely no problem if the corresponding low-level functionality is missing. If you write low-level stuff in a language not designed for it, you're simply using the wrong language to begin with.

    The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
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