Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals by Jean E. Sammet is often cited in discussions of language history, but very rarely read (I appreciate that many oft cited books have not been read by those citing them, but age further reduces the likelihood that anybody has read this book; it was published in 1969). I read this book as an undergraduate, but did not think much of it. For around five years it has been on my list of books to buy, should a second-hand copy become available below £10 (I buy anything vaguely interesting below this price, with most ending up left on trains or the book table of coffee shops).
The list of 120 languages covered contains a handful of the 28 languages covered in an article from 1957. Sammet says that of the 120, 20 are already dead or on obsolete computers (i.e., it is unlikely that another compiler will be written), and that about 15 are widely used/implemented).
Today, the book is no longer a discussion of the recent past, but a window in to the Cambrian explosion of programming languages that happened in the 1960s (almost everything since then has been a variation on a theme); languages from the 1950s are also included.
How does the material appear to me from a 2022 vantage-point?
The organization of the book reminded me that programming languages were once categorized by application domain, i.e., scientific/engineering users, business users, and string & list processing (i.e., academic users). This division reflected the market segmentation for computer hardware (back then, personal computers were still in the realm of science fiction). Modern programming language books (e.g., Scott’s “Programming Language Pragmatics”) often organize material based on implementation details, e.g., lexical analysis, and scoping rules.
The overview of programming languages given in the first three chapters covers nearly all the basic issues that beginners are taught today, but the emphasis is different (plus typographical differences, such as keyword spelt ‘key word’).
Two major language constructs are missing: Dynamic storage allocation is not discussed: Wirth’s book Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs is seven years in the future, and Kernighan and Ritchie’s The C Programming Language nine years; Simula gets a paragraph, but no mention of the object-oriented concepts it introduced.
What is a programming language, and what are the distinguishing features that make some of them high-level programming languages?
These questions may sound pointless or obvious today, but people used to spend lots of time arguing over what was, or was not, a high-level language.
Sammet says: “… the first characteristic of a programming language is that the user can write a program without knowing much—if anything—about the physical characteristics of the machine on which the program is to be run.”, and goes on to infer: “… a major characteristic of a programming language is that there must be a reasonable potential of having a source program written in that language run on two computers with different machine codes without rewriting the source program. … In most programming languages, some—but often very little—rewriting of the source program is necessary.”
The reason that some rewriting of the source was likely to be needed is that there were often a lot of small variations between compilers for the same language. Compilers tended to be bespoke, i.e., the Fortran compiler for the X cpu running OS Y was written specifically for that combination. Retargetting an existing compiler to a new cpu or OS was much talked about, but it was more fun to write a new compiler (and anyway, support for new features was needed, and it was simpler to start from scratch; page 149 lists differences in Fortran compilers across IBM machines). It didn’t help that there was also a lot of variation in fundamental quantities such as word length, e.g., 16, 18, 20, 24, 32, 36, 40, 48, 60 bit words; see page 18 of Dictionary of Computer Languages.
Sammet makes the distinction: “One of the prime differences between assembly and higher level languages is that to date the latter do not have the capability of modifying themselves at execution time.”
Sammet then goes on to list the advantages and disadvantages of what she calls higher level languages. Most of the claimed advantages will be familiar to readers: “Ease of Learning”, “Ease of Coding and Understanding”, “Ease of Debugging”, and “Ease of Maintaining and Documenting”. The disadvantages included: “Time Required for Compiling” (the issue here is converting assembler source to object code is much faster than compiling a high-level language), “Inefficient Object Code” (the translation process was often a one-to-one mapping of what was written, e.g., little reuse of register contents), “Difficulties in Debugging Without Learning Machine Language” (symbolic debuggers are still in the future).
Sammet’s observation: “In spite of the fact that higher level languages have been with us for over 10 years, there has been relatively little quantitative or qualitative analysis of their advantages and disadvantages.” is still true 50 years later.
If you enjoy learning about lots of different languages, you will like this book. The discussion of specific languages contains copious examples, which for me brought things to life.
Saul Rosen’s 1967 book “Programming Systems and Languages” is sometimes cited in discussions of programming language history. This book is a collection of papers that discuss a variety of languages and the operating systems that support them. Fewer languages are covered, but in more depth, along with lots of implementation details. Again, lots of interesting references.