The History of the ALGOL Effort

Huub de Beer
download the whole history of the ALGOL effort as a pdf file (1.1 megabytes)

On May 20th, 2006, Peter Naur received the 2005 ACM Turing Award. This award is often regarded as the ``Nobel Prize'' in Computer Science. Naur was rewarded for his `pioneering work on defining the Algol 60 programming language. (...) [He] was editor in 1960 of the hugely influential "Report on the Algorithmic Language Algol 60." He is recognised for the report's elegance, uniformity and coherence, and credited as an important contributor to the language's power and simplicity.'0

Forty-five years after the publication of the ALGOL 60 report, it is still regarded as one of the most influential papers in computer science. Peter Naur was not the only Turing Award winner related to the ALGOL effort: A.J. Perlis, J. McCarthy, E.W. Dijkstra, J. Backus, R.W. Floyd, C.A.R. Hoare, and N. Wirth were all awarded before him.1 It may be not for their work in the ALGOL effort per sé, but they were all part of the effort, either as a member of the committee defining ALGOL 58 or ALGOL 60, as an implementor of ALGOL 60, as a contributor to the theory of formal languages stimulated by ALGOL 60, or as a member of the committee working on a new ALGOL in the 1960s.

The awarding of these computer scientists indicates that the ALGOL effort was an important part of the development of computer science itself. This importance is often stated without elaborating exactly why it was so important. ALGOL 60 was not the first programming language and it certainly was not the most used one. So, the question arises: What was the importance of the ALGOL effort for computer science?

To answer this question, the history of the ALGOL effort is told. First, the start of the effort is discussed and the central question in that chapter is: Why was there a need for an effort like the ALGOL effort? This question will be answered by treating the computational context in which this effort was initiated; the algebraic programming languages from the 1950s are compared including the first language created by the ALGOL effort, ALGOL 58. Was this International Algebraic Language really better than these other algebraic languages?

Then, the development from ALGOL 58 leading to the publication of the Report on the algorithmic language ALGOL 60 2 in May 1960 is treated. In this period, the notation used to describe and define programming languages changed fundamentally. The resulting ALGOL 60 report would become the standard for defining programming languages. Both the interesting new features in the programming language ALGOL 60 and the reasons why this new notation was developed during the ALGOL effort, are discussed.

ALGOL 60 is often related to the development of formal language theory in computer science. This development was a result of the common effort to create translators for ALGOL 60. How did this development take shape, and, more importantly, what was the importance of this development for computer science?

After the publication of the ALGOL effort, a period of maintenance of the ALGOL 60 language was started. During this period, the responsibility for ALGOL was transferred to an international body: the famous Working Group 2.1 of IFIP. Later, this working group developed a new ALGOL resulting in dismay and the end of the ALGOL effort. This end of the ALGOL effort did not set a good example for computer science, and the question arises: what was the importance, if any, of the effort to create a new ALGOL?

Finally, the conclusion of this research on the ALGOL effort is drawn by answering the main question: What was the the importance of the ALGOL effort for computer science? Before the history of the ALGOL effort is told some remarks on the sources used, on my perspective, and on the term ``ALGOL effort'' are made.

On this history of the ALGOL effort

This history on the ALGOL effort was written as a Master thesis in Computer Science and Engineering (Technische Informatica) at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands.

You can download this history on the ALGOL effort as a pdf file (1.1 megabytes) and read the whole story. I have put the whole bibliography of this research on the history of the ALGOL effort online, both as a html file and a bibtex file.


  1. 0 ACM Pressroom, 'Software Pioneer Peter Naur Wins ACM’s Turing Award. Dane’s Creative Genius Revolutionized Computer Language Design' (2006)
  2. 1 ACM, 'A. M. Turing Award' (2006)
  3. 2 J. W. Backus et al., 'Report on the algorithmic language ALGOL 60', Commun. ACM 3:5 (1960)