The Economics of Programming Languages – in the 1950’s

I was having a look at this paper on the development of Fortran:

http://www.softwarepreservation.org/projects/FORTRAN/paper/p165-backus.pdf (which I found here )

And I noticed the following quote:

1.2. The Economics of Programming

Another factor which influenced the development of FORTRAN was the economics of programming in 1954. The cost of programmers associated with a computer center was usually at least as great as the cost of the computer itself. (This fact follows from the aver- age salary-plus-overhead and number of programmers at each center and from the computer rental figures.) In addition, from one-quarter to one-half of the computer’s time was spent in debugging. Thus programming and debugging accounted for as much as three-quarters of the cost of operating a computer; and obviously, as computers got cheaper, this situation would get worse.

This economic factor was one of the prime motivations which led me to propose the FORTRAN project in a letter to my boss, Cuthbert Hurd, in late 1953 (the exact date is not known but other facts suggest December 1953 as a likely date). I believe that the economic need for a system like FORTRAN was one reason why IBM and my successive bosses, Hurd, Charles DeCarlo, and John McPherson, provided for our constantly expanding needs over the next five years without ever asking us to project or justify those needs in a formal budget.

As Hal Varian says, “Ignore basic economic principles at your own risk. Technology changes. Economic laws do not.”

I would continue to bet on programming languages that save programmers time, or otherwise make them more productive.

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