Obituaries

Jean Sammet, 89; codesigned pioneering computer language

NEW YORK — Jean E. Sammet, an early software engineer and a designer of COBOL, a programming language that brought computing into the business mainstream, died May 20 in Maryland. She was 89.

She lived in a retirement community in Silver Spring and died at a nearby hospital after a brief illness, said Elizabeth Conlisk, a spokeswoman for Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where Ms. Sammet had earned her undergraduate degree and later endowed a professorship in computer science.

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The programming language Ms. Sammet helped bring to life is now more than a half-century old, but billions of lines of COBOL code still run on the mainframe computers that underpin the work of corporations and government agencies around the world.

Ms. Sammet was a graduate student in mathematics when she first encountered a computer in 1949 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She wasn’t impressed.

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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.”

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In the early 1950s, the computer industry was in its infancy, with no settled culture or rigid career paths.

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. 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.

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 business data.

The Defense Department, 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.

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.

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.

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 in use, and an estimated 2 billion lines are added or changed each year, according to IBM Research.

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