There will be people that will dismiss any “popular” programming list as a kind of meaningless horse race. But that’s as long as you are not looking for job prospects as an answer to what will pay the bills and keep the lights on when you enter the work world. But the field is large enough that you have room to ask yourself: what kind of programming do you want to do? Systems programming? Applications? Servers? Clients? Scientific models? Statistical studies? Device drivers? Everyone hears about web programming, since that is the most visible, and seems to get the most “airplay” in the media. It might even interest you. For others, it’s dull. There is so much more out there.
With that preamble, why am I bothering to still do this? It is to show how popular languages follow the ebb and flow of computing history. Since World War II, we had the ENIAC, a host of IBM and AT&T mainframes, followed by networked computers, then personal computers, then the internet, and so on. With each major shake-up, programming needs change.
By 1965, what had changed preferences in computer languages, are the same things that change it today: changes in hardware, programming for mainframes versus “personal” computers (which in this decade amounted to comptuers like the PDP-1). In the 1960s, hard drives (which were called “disk drums” back then) were relatively new, as was magnetic tape. Transistors hadn’t quite made their heyday yet, with the some of the most powerful computers still using vacuum tubes.
COBOL. 1960 saw the introduction of supercomputers in the service of business, and by far the most popular language was COBOL (COmmon Buisiness-Oriented Language). COBOL was an interpreted language, which meant it was capable of running on many different machines with a minimum number of changes. Today, by the end of 2022, over 80% of business code is still written in COBOL.
ALGOL. Algol-60 saw the first implementation of the QuickSort algorithm, invented by C. A. R. Hoare, while a student in Moscow. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his discovery. Algol was behind COBOL as the most popular programming language, but both were dwarfed by FORTRAN users.
FORTRAN. FORTRAN was far and away the most popular programming language by 1965, and stayed that way for some decades. It was taught in many “service” computer course taken by science students and most engineering students. It was known for having a rather elaborate mathematics capability.
Other languages popular during that period: Assembly, APL, BASIC and Lisp. 1969 was the year that PASCAL was first introduced, by Niklaus Wirth.
1970 saw the invention of UNIX by Kernighan and Ritchie at AT&T Labs, and Pascal came on board as a teaching language for structured programming in many university freshman courses. Otherwise, the landscape was pretty much the same for programming languages in popular use as before.
By 1975, C had grown in popularity, but was not a teaching language: BASIC, Pascal, and Lisp had all ascended in popularity as we had sent men on the moon, and more students became interested in computer programming. FORTRAN and COBOL were still at the top of the heap, while ALGOL, APL and Assembly moved down. Assembly would in future decades disappear from general popularity, but it would never truly go away.
By 1980, C++ had been introduced by Bjarne Stroustrup over the past couple of years, bringing the concept of object-oriented programming to the world. More and more people had mastered C, and it moved to the middle of the “top 10” proramming languages used that year. Pascal became a wildly more popular language due to the introduction of household desktop PCs, and the offering of a Turbo Pascal compiler by a software company called Borland. Microsoft offered BASIC and FORTRAN compilers that extended their stock QBASIC interpreter that came with DOS. In addition, Tandy, Commodore and Sinclair were offering their own machines, each with their own BASIC interpreters.
Bjarne Stroustrup publishes his seminal work The C++ Programming Language, in 1985. With the introduction of Windows and Windows NT, Microsoft expanded their programming offering to include Visual Studio, which included compilers for C and C++. C was rising to the top of the charts, competing with Borland’s Pascal product. C would never leave the top 3 for another 15 years.
Visual BASIC was introduced by Microsoft. C++ rose to the top 5. FORTRAN, BASIC, Assembly, and COBOL all fell to the bottom 5 of the top 10 languages. C had a wild surge in popularity, as the Internet was coming onstream, and the World-Wide Web was just starting in the universities. By 1992, the top 2 positions were occupied by C and C++. Also by 1992, a need for CGI scripting was needed for the fledgling W0rld-wide web, and Perl became popular.
Pascal was falling out of favour as computers were moving away from DOS in the home and in business, and by 1997, Borland designed and object-oriented version of Pascal, which was called Delphi. It turned out to be a formidable competitor to Visual Basic. By 1998, even more server-side dynamic web programming was provided with the language PHP.
C was finally pushed out of the top spot by Java; and Delphi was starting to drop out of the picture as Borland had financial troubles after a failed bid to attempt to make inroads into Linux, with their introduction of Kylix. They sold off Delphi to Embracadero, who produces that product today. Perl continues to ascend in popularity only slowly, as its popularity is buoyed up by a legacy of libraries and its role in various bioinformatics projects, such as the Human Genome Project, conducted by universities around the world.
In part due to bioinformatics and other informatics endeavours, math and stats-based languages popped up such as Matlab and R. There were still new web-based languages like Ruby.
C and C++ were pushed out of the top 5. R, primarily a statistical programming language, rose to #7, second only to C. By 2019, Python was the top language programmers were using. Kotlin showed up briefly in 2019, owing to Google’s support of the language on the Android.