Resurrection, the bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, arrived last week with the news that Algol60 is now 50 years old. Now the computing world falls into three groups: Probably the largest who have never heard of Algol, then a slightly smaller group who have heard of it, usually as a successor to Fortran and an input to C, C++, Java and even C#, but never used it. Then the third much smaller group who have used it and know it was the best language ever developed. In fact, Tony Hoare said of it (in 1973), "Here is a language so far ahead of it's time that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors, but on nearly all its successors." High praise indeed! So why don't we still use it?
Fortran is still in use and that predates Algol. However, languages such as Pascal (and the Modular/Oberon family), Simula, and smalltalk that were influenced by Algol have all but disappeared. I will now get protesting emails from the 1000 or so people still using those languages! And the 100 still using Forth.
In 1960, computing in the modern sense had been around for less than 20 years. Though in reality, as an industry or profession, from the first non-secret computers from the late 1940s, it was barely a decade before Algol. That is only 60-odd years ago. There are people alive now who were involved in developing those first computers. My own father started programming in 1952 and is still with us.
Back in those days computers, even the few but growing number of commercial computers were almost experimental. There were few standards as no one had any best practice or history to work from. There was nothing to work from at all; it was all blue sky thinking, or rather "light grey sky" as most things were still in black and white then!
Everyone had their own link-loaders to load and start programs as there were few operating systems, let alone anything standard like Unix or Windows. In fact, almost every computer had its own system, even from the same manufacturer. This started to cause multiple dialects. Manufacturers had their own reserved words so "improved" Algols were not compatible with each other. OK, so some things don't change, although I did find a note that the Atlas computer had a pre-processor that could handle 15 dialects of Algol including Danish and French. Finally, Algol was paper tape-based just as punch cards started to come in. There were efforts to make a punch card dialect but these did not appear to get very far.
As for the name, Algol stood for Algorithmic Language. Unlike Fortran, which was a formula translator, Algol was for algorithms, i.e., problem solving. However, as Algol did not have standard I/O or defined libraries, sub-compilation or re-locatable binaries, the scientists stayed with their FORmula TRANslator which still survives today.
The language was advanced with structural elements—yes, structured programming started here! It also had the important concepts of simplicity, security, and clarity that most have strived for ever since. It predated common APIs and OSs. As Algol fragmented, others were using its ideas and concepts in new languages designed for new machines as things started to standardise. The other point is that Algol was designed for mainframes. It was not one of the languages that appeared on the new "toy" computers a decade later at the end of the 1970s. Who could tell that these personal, home, or hobby computers would become ubiquitous?