Jean Sammet, Co-Designer of a Pioneering Computer Language, Dies at 89

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“I thought of a computer as some obscene piece of hardware that I wanted nothing to do with,” Ms. Sammet recalled in an interview in 2000.

Her initial aversion was not unusual among the math purists of the time, long before computer science emerged as an academic discipline. Later, Ms. Sammet tried programming calculations onto cardboard punched cards, which were then fed into a computer.

“To my utter astonishment,” she said, “I loved it.”

In the early 1950s, the computer industry was in its infancy, with no settled culture or rigid career paths. Lois Haibt, a contemporary of Ms. Sammet’s at IBM, where Ms. Sammet worked for nearly three decades, observed, “They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women.”

Ms. Sammet became one of the most prominent women of her generation in computing. Her deepest interest was in programming languages and using them to open computing to a wider audience. Her ambition, Ben Shneiderman, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, recalled her saying, was “to put every person in communication with the computer.”

Jean E. Sammet was born on March 23, 1928, in New York City. Both her parents, Harry and Ruth Sammet, were lawyers. Jean excelled in math starting in the first grade and chose to attend college at Mount Holyoke because it had an excellent mathematics department.

Her programming career included stints at Sperry Gyroscope and its successor Sperry Rand, and Sylvania Electric before she joined IBM in 1961. She was also a historian and advocate for her profession. Her book, “Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals,” published in 1969, “was, and remains, a classic” in the field, said Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.


Ms. Sammet in 2013. Credit Ben Barnhart/Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College

In 1974, Ms. Sammet became the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a leading professional association in computer science. She held the post for two years.

Yet her most enduring legacy is the role she played in the creation and longevity of COBOL. By the end of the 1950s, it was becoming clear that computers could be powerful tools not only for scientific calculations but also in business — helping to manage accounting, payroll, purchasing and manufacturing operations. That led to the creation of the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL — a means to handle not just numbers, but also business data.

The United States Department of Defense, the largest purchaser of computers at the time, set general guidelines for COBOL, including asking for “the maximum use of simple English” to “broaden the base of those who can state problems to computers.” Later, the Pentagon declared it would not buy or lease computers unless they ran COBOL.

Grace Hopper, a computer pioneer at Sperry Rand in the late 1950s, led the effort to bring computer makers together to collaborate on the new programming language. Ms. Hopper is often called the “mother of COBOL,” but she was not one of the six people, including Ms. Sammet, who designed the language — a fact Ms. Sammet rarely failed to point out. (Ms. Sammet worked for Sylvania Electric at the time.)

“I yield to no one in my admiration for Grace,” she said. “But she was not the mother, creator or developer of COBOL.”

Ms. Sammet and the other five programmers did much of the new language’s design during two weeks of nearly round-the-clock work, holed up in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan. Their proposal was presented in November 1959 and accepted with few changes by the computer makers they worked for and the Pentagon.

COBOL, particularly the early versions, allowed programmers the freedom to write code without much structure, leading to complex, sprawling programs scorned as so-called spaghetti code. Academics were often dismissive. In 1975, Edsger Dijkstra, a prominent computer scientist, wrote, “The use of COBOL cripples the mind.”

But COBOL was innovative for its time in the techniques it used to describe and represent data in computer code. It provided software to organize basic data on customers or citizens, including names, addresses, Social Security numbers and phone numbers. Brian Kernighan, a computer scientist at Princeton University, said COBOL “really was very good at handling formatted data.”

As it evolved, Ms. Sammet pushed to inject more engineering discipline into the language to make it more useful and reliable in industries like banking, health care and retailing, and for government agencies.

Grady Booch, chief scientist for software engineering at IBM Research, said “Jean Sammet was a strong, consistent voice of integrity in those efforts.”

She leaves no immediate survivors.

COBOL was initially intended as a short-term solution to the problem of handling business data — a technology that might be useful for a year or two until something better came along. But it has lived on. More than 200 billion lines of COBOL code are now in use and an estimated 2 billion lines are added or changed each year, according to IBM Research.

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