Looking at so many programming languages we have today, each one being unique in it's own way, I've tried to figure out what the first programming language written for computers is.

Looking at the release date for the popular ones I got somewhat close but I didn't look at less obvious ones, programming languages which are either dead or very little use nowadays. Fortran is the closest thing I got but I don't know if it's real.

In a nutshell: What was the first programming language written for computers? Are there any languages that derived from that language?

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    machine language Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 21:15
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    ThePlan read our "how to ask" guidelines and please do some minor research before asking on Programmers. All the information you are looking for in this question is available on the History section on the Wikipedia article on programming languages and the more extended article History of programming languages. If you do the research, make sure to tell us about it in your questions (how else would we know?).
    – yannis
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 23:21
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    (cont...) I get it that you are a youngster starting out, however you need to understand that one of the most important skills for a software developer is effective research. Getting "cheap" answers from Programmers won't help you much in the long run.
    – yannis
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 23:23
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    OMG! Google exists! Who knew?!
    – Dynamic
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 15:31
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    You don't know if FORTRAN is real!?!?
    – Gaius
    Commented Jun 5, 2012 at 16:00

7 Answers 7


It's difficult to answer that definitively, but Plankalkül was designed by Konrad Zuse between 1943 and 1945. The linked Wikipedia article refers to it as "the first high-level non-von Neumann programming language to be designed for a computer".

See also.

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    I knew vaguely of Zuse, but I'd never heard of Plankallkul before. Very interesting! I think this needs a footnote though. The Wikipedia article points out that it was designed in the 1940s but not actually implemented until the 1990s. Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:19
  • Wikipedia: " Heinz Rutishauser, one of the founders of ALGOL: The very first attempt to devise an algorithmic language was undertaken in 1948 by K. Zuse. His notation was quite general, but the proposal never attained the consideration it deserved."
    – Falcon
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:24
  • @Falcon: Zuse designed the language between 1943 and 1945; he didn't publish until 1948. (He lived and worked in Germany, and there were some distractions at the time.) Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:41
  • @Keith Thompson: I know. I just wanted to quote the wikipedia article in the comments for further information.
    – Falcon
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:42
  • @Falcon: Yes, I was expanding on your comment, not disagreeing with it. Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:43

Knuth, The Early Development of Programming Languages, originally published in Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology (1977) and reprinted in Selected Papers on Computer Languages gives information on early languages (including the implementation a small program) and is probably the best accessible source on them.

The earlier he cites is Plankalkül (Zuse, 1945), which wasn't implemented and the describing paper not even published before 1972) thus had little influence.

Then he gives Flow Diagrams (Goldstine and von Neumann, 1946), Composition (Curry, 1948), Short Code (Mauchly et al., 1949), Intermediate PL (Burks, 1950) and some later one.

Sammet, Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals is little concerned by "early languages", but gives a list of about 150 languages from before 1959.

FORTRAN is probably the earliest one still existing and having lot of influence. COBOL, LISP are also still existing and -- for LISP -- a lot of variants and descendants. ALGOL is probably the major influencing programming languages which hasn't evolved in direct line until now -- but it has lot of presence, C being one of its indirect descendant.


If you are willing to go back to the paper and punch cards (since the first programming languages predate the modern computer) the Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, used holes in punched cards to represent sewing loom arm movements. This could be considered the "first" code.

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    Describing a loom as a computer seems like a biiiiiiiiig stretch (notwithstanding that I'm sure some enterprising soul somewhere could prove one Turing complete...)
    – AakashM
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 7:48
  • Was it turing complete?
    – Ian
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 21:55

after assembly type things the first was Fortran created by John Backus at IBM in 1957, Lisp was created in 1957 by John McCarthy at MIT, Cobol came out in '59.

Fortran influenced a bunch of other things and Lisp has influence in pretty much everything.


I would argue that the first language created for a computer was the machine language of Babbage's analytical engine, the first Turing-complete general-purpose computer design.

Although Babbage's machine was never built, Ada Lovelace (actually Augusta Ada King (nee Byron), Countess of Lovelace) is widely credited as the worlds first programmer due to her implementation of an algorithm for generating the sequence of Bernoulli numbers on the analytical engine. What started out as a translation of Luigi Menabrea's article ended up a seminal work in computer science due to her copious notes, which ended up longer than the article she was translating.

In fact, the paper makes fascinating reading even today, I would highly recommend it.


According to this source, FORTRAN in 1954. FORTRAN is still used extensively in science and engineering though the language has been significantly modified.

There is some ambiguity in what is considered a programming language. Assembly might count, since it is an abstraction of the underlying binary codes, and has syntax.


The first "real" language was Assembly, unless you'd consider things like switches or punch cards a programming language.

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    Punch cards aren't a language, they're a storage medium.
    – Kyle
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 18:10

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