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Lois Haibt: The core of Fortran

[ photo: Lois Haibt ]

The core of Fortran

When IBM offered Lois Haibt a job in programming computers, she saw the starting salary of $5,100 and couldn’t say no. Right out of Vassar College, Haibt, who at the time had only a vague idea of what computer programming actually was, didn’t realize how important her decision to take the job was for the future of computers. She became a member of the IBM team that developed Fortran, which is considered the first successful computer programming language.

In an effort to create the language that would revolutionize computer science, IBM hired a team composed of members in their 20s and 30s who were skilled in problem solving. Haibt seemed a perfect candidate for the team due to her college success in math and science (she had pursued a degree in mathematics at Vassar) and love for a good challenge. “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women,'' Haibt, Vassar Class of 1955, recalled in an interview in 2000. Haibt was successful in building the flow analysis—“the very core of the Fortran compiler.''

Fortran, which was finally revealed in 1957, is a mix between algebra and shorthand, and was hailed by New York Times reporter Steve Lohr as “a programming language that was a historic breakthrough in computing.''