FLOW-MATIC, originally known as B-0 (Business Language version 0) was the first English-like data processing language. It was developed by Grace Hopper in 1955 for the UNIVAC I, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer designed for business applications at Remington Rand, an early American business machine manufacturer.
By being the first programming language to express operations using English-like statements, FLOW-MATIC helped shape the development of COBOL, an object-oriented programming language designed for business use.
In the early 1950s, computers were designed by electrical engineers and used by mathematicians. They focused on scientific research and complex engineering problems.
In 1952, Grace Hopper attended the Association for Computing Machinery conference and presented the idea of compilers that were approachable to non-mathematicians. She indicated that business data processing customers were uncomfortable with mathematical notation.
In 1953, Hopper found that data processing problems could be expressed using English keywords. She advanced this discovery by writing a specification for a programming language designed around the principles of natural language and implementing a prototype in 1955. FLOW-MATIC, the first business-oriented language intended for general-purpose use, became publicly available 1958 and substantially complete in 1959.
While FLOW-MATIC was popular at first, it was limited to running on a single vendor’s computer architecture, which prevented the ability to move in between vendors.
The U.S. Department of Defense began to advocate for the creation of a general-purpose language that was controlled by a neutral standards body. This push led to the Conference on Data Systems Languages, which studied the existing high-level languages and defined standards for the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL).
Grace Hopper participated in the standardization process, and the resulting standard of COBOL incorporated several FLOW-MATIC elements such as dividing the program into sections, separating different parts of the program, and the qualification of data-names.
Early versions of COBOL ran slowly, but compilers sped up significantly by 1964. By 1970, most computer vendors had discontinued their alternative high-level languages and adopted the COBOL standard, making it the most popular programming language in the world at that time.
Without FLOW-MATIC, the COBOL programming language would not have come about, and the business landscape would look vastly different, as things such as ATMs and credit card services use COBOL code.