C is a language written between '69 and '73 according to WIkipedia. I imagine it made programming a whole lot easier and opened the gate for other programming languages.

My question, however, is what programming language dominated the market before C appeared? I'm tempted to say fortran and/or BASIC but I wasn't even alive back then so I have no idea.

By "most used", I mean a MUST-LEARN programming language, which most programmers were using at the time.


Pascal was the direct predecessor to C for a large number of purposes. C did "unify" things a bit though. Before C, you often had to choose between Pascal, assembly language, or FORTRAN based on the capabilities you needed. C largely (but not completely) replaced all three. You often wanted to use Pascal, but couldn't. You grudgingly chose FORTRAN for performance, or assembly language for low-level access.

FORTRAN still had (and has) better performance than C, and assembly language still has more low level access -- but for many purposes, what C provided was enough.

Edit: I suppose I should add (as alluded to by Keith Thompson) Pascal doesn't really predate the creation of C by enough to notice. Pascal did, however, become widely pervasive relatively quickly. In the late '70s and early '80s, most typical hackers were at least vaguely aware of the existence of C, but only a relatively small number really used it.

During the CP/M days, for example, I can recall having a choice of a half dozen (or so) Pascal compilers: Microsoft Pascal, Pascal/S, Pascal/MT+, JRT Pascal, etc. Only toward the very end of CP/M, and into the early use of the IBM PC did C compilers start to become an option -- and even then, you choices were extremely limited. The first two I remember were BDS C and Whitesmith's C. BDS seemed to work well, but was limited enough that most "real C" programs wouldn't port to it. Whitesmiths also had some idiosyncrasies, was so expensive most people couldn't afford it, and so large that you typically had to swap floppy disks a half dozen (or so) times to compile even the simplest piece of code. A non-toy program could easily take several minutes to build, requiring operator intervention the entire time. The other option of the time was Micro-C, which (as you can guess from the name) was stripped down to the point that it took quite a bit of work to port to it -- not to mention the fact that if you wanted to run it on CP/M, you have to get the source code from Dr. Dobbs (printed), typed into your system, and then port it to CP/M on your own.

By contrast, Turbo Pascal became available around 1981 or '2 (if memory serves). It compiled in-memory, so small programs could compile and start to execute essentially instantly, even on a 1 MHz processor. The earlier Pascal compilers weren't that fast, but still a lot more reasonable than any C compiler of the time.

At least for people outside universities, C only started to become a reasonable choice around the mid-1980's or so. Early on you have Mark Williams, Datalight, and so on -- lots of companies that are long gone now. Then Borland came out with Turbo C, Microsoft answered with Quick C, and programmers could (and did) debate endlessly about the relative merits of a dozen different compilers.

| improve this answer | |
  • The first programming language I ever heard of was Pascal, thanks for the answer. – Bugster Apr 9 '12 at 18:03
  • Pascal was "designed in 1968/9 and published in 1970". I doubt that it was the most popular language before C was introduced. – Keith Thompson Apr 9 '12 at 18:05
  • While Pascal was a neat language, it was no way comparable to C in terms of being used in real projects. – Remo.D Apr 9 '12 at 19:05
  • @Remo.D: no, but nothing else at the time was much closer. Fortran and COBOL were used a lot, but only for specific types of programs. Ratfor was out there, but never really used very widely. Assembly language was in use, but even in the '70s everybody avoided it when they could. – Jerry Coffin Apr 9 '12 at 19:15
  • @Remo.D: Pascal was the normal development language for development in the early days of the Macintosh, and Turbo Pascal was more popular than C for purposes of PC development until Turbo C displaced it. – supercat Sep 1 '15 at 2:22

Pascal, Fortran, Assembly, and Algol were the most used languages before C. C sort of replaced all of them. For business applications, COBOL (eek!) was the standard.

| improve this answer | |

What about COBOL?

Still a MUST-LEARN in some businesses today.

| improve this answer | |
  • The first release of COBOL that followed a single standard appears to have been released in 1968. Before that it didn't have a standard. Fortran was around the same period before 1968. Fortran was influced by Basic. Pascal was also around. – Ramhound Apr 9 '12 at 18:15
  • 1
    Fortran wasn't influenced by BASIC, Fortran was invented 10years before BASIC – Martin Beckett Apr 9 '12 at 23:09

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.