Paying tribute to a pioneer of computing, Jean E. Sammet, designer of COBOL

Gillian Jacobs pays homage to coder Jean E. Sammet. Portrait by Pascal Shirley.

Jean E. Sammet, a designer of COBOL, the programming language that brought computing into the business mainstream, has died aged 89, reports The New York Times.

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,” said the Times.

“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.”

Sammet’s 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, California. In 1974, Sammet became the first female president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a leading professional association in computer science.

In the May issue of Glamour magazine, computer science advocate Gillian Jacobs writes about interviewing Sammet while while researching a documentary she directed about her contemporary, computer scientist Grace Hopper. “Last year I had the privilege of meeting [her] at a conference celebrating women in computing- and when I realised I was in the presence of the Jean Sammet, I burst into tears.”