Early computers were programmed by literally connecting wires then turning the machine on. Eventually, that evolved to assembly language; a one and zero type exercise telling the computer exactly what to do. Modern computer programming languages are more like English. Programmers write in an English-like language and a computer program turns that into the ones and zeros computers understand.
FORTRAN (“Formula Translation”), invented in 1957, was the first modern programming language. But Fortran was a non-standardized language for scientific work. Jack Backus was the lead engineer developing Fortran.
Towards the late 1950s computer use was exploding. The US Department of Defense (DoD) operated 225 computers. There were open orders for 175 more. Each computer was custom programmed at enormous cost. Industry was also ordering an ever-expanding number of computers, programming each individually.
Eventually, a consortium of government and private industry computer users created a series of conferences to develop one general-purpose computer language. By using one language, programmers could switch from one computer to another, with no need to understand the internal nuts-and-bolts of a computer.
Early computer programmers were overwhelmingly women. Programming was “women’s work” because, before computers, women did computations. Indeed, the term “computer” referred to a woman’s job doing computations, not to a machine.
Consortium participants soon settled on an early programming language, FLOW-MATIC, developed by computer programmer Grace Hopper. They extended her language to make it more general-purpose. Two other languages, COMTRAN by IBM and AIMACO by Univac, also contributed.
COBOL became the standard after much haggling. Subsequently, the new language ran on multiple computers demonstrating platform independence.