B. Kimbell of Sharon, Mass., asks, 'Whatever happened to ...?' The Computer Language Fortran

When John Backus proposed Fortran (FORmula TRANslating) at IBM in 1954, he took the world by storm. His was the first programming language for numerical calculations. It let programmers express mathematical formulas that computers could translate into machine instructions.

Experts were skeptical, but Fortran worked.

In 1962, IBM introduced Fortran IV, which was updated again in 1978.

By the 1980s, though, programmers were abandoning Fortran in favor of other programs with better features. Language designers upgraded Fortran again.

In 1992, Fortran 90 was released, and is in wide use today. It is the most popular language for "large computability difficulty spanning many orders of scale," says Adrian Dolling, a consultant at Channel Consulting in Victoria, British Columbia.

The language is still used for weather forecasting, understanding nuclear explosions, and computing large-scale fluid dynamics. Fortran 95 is in the final stages of standardization.

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