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‘to program’ is 70 this month

‘To program’ was first used to describe writing programs in August 1946.

The evidence for this is contained in First draft of a report on the EDVAC by John von Neumann and material from the Moore School lectures. Lecture 34, held on 7th August, uses “program” in its modern sense.

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, from 1976, does not list the computer usage at all! Perhaps, only being 30 years old in 1976, the computer usage was only considered important enough to include in the 20 volume version of the dictionary and had to wait a few more decades to be included in the shorter 2 volume set. Can a reader with access to the 20 volume set from 1976 confirm that it does include a computer usage for program?

Program, programme, 1633. [orig., in spelling program, – Gr.-L. programma … reintroduced from Fr. programme, and now more usu. so spelt.] … 1. A public notice … 2. A descriptive notice,… a course of study, etc.; a prospectus, syllabus; now esp. a list of the items or ‘numbers’ of a concert…

It would be another two years before a stored program computer was available ‘to program’ computers in a way that mimics how things are done today.

Grier ties it all together in a convincing argument in his paper: “The ENIAC, the verb “to program” and the emergence of digital computers” (cannot find a copy outside a paywall).

Steven Wolfram does a great job of untangling Ada Lovelace’s computer work. I think it is true to say that Lovelace is the first person to think like a programmer, while Charles Babbage was the first person to think like a computer hardware engineer.

If you encounter somebody claiming to have been programming for more than 70 years, they are probably embellishing their cv (in the late 90s I used to bump into people claiming to have been using Java for 10 years, i.e., somewhat longer than the language had existed).

Update: Oxford dictionaries used to come with an Addenda (thanks to Stephen Cox for reminding me in the comments; my volume II even says “Marl-Z and Addenda” on the spine).

Program, programme. 2. c. Computers. A fully explicit series of instructions which when fed into a computer will automatically direct its operation in carrying out a specific task 1946. Also as v. trans., to supply (a computer) with a p.; to cause (a computer) to do something by this means; also, to express as or in a p. Hence Programming vbl. sbl., the operation of programming a computer; also, the writing or preparation of programs. Programmer, a person who does this.

  1. Stephen Cox
    August 22nd, 2016 at 13:06 | #1

    My copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the computer usage in the Addenda. It’s the Fifth Edition dated 1964, reprinted with corrections 1973. Also listed are ALGOL, algorithm, analogue computer, COBOL and FORTRAN.

  2. August 22nd, 2016 at 16:34 | #2

    @Stephen Cox
    Thanks, I once knew this! I even attended a talk in the 1980s where the Oxford people described the process of creating a computer version of the dictionary, which involved two independent sets of typists in the far-east typing everything and then comparing the two versions for differences.

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