Vintage Programming Languages

For the last 30 years, C has been my programming language of choice. As you probably know, C was invented in the early 1970s by Dennis M. Ritchie for the first UNIX kernel and ran on a DEC PDP-11 computer. I am probably a bit old-fashioned. Yes, C is outdated, but I’m simply addicted to it, like plenty of other embedded system programmers. For me, C is a low level but portable language that’s adequate for all my professional and personal projects ranging from optimized code on microcontrollers to signal processing or even PC software. I know that there are many powerful alternatives like Java and C++, but, well, I’m used to C.

C is not the only vintage programming language, and playing with some others is definitively fun. This month, I’ll present several vintage languages and show you that each language has its pros and cons. Maybe you’ll find one of them helpful for a future project? I’m sure you won’t use COBOL in your next device, but what about FORTH or LISP? As you’ll see, thanks to web-based compilers and simulators, playing with programming languages is simple. And after you’re finished with this review of 1970s-era computing technology, give one or two a try!


Like many teenagers in the 1970s, I learned to program with Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). In 1980, after some early tests with programming calculators, a friend let me try a Rockwell AIM-65 computer. An expanded version of the KIM-1, it had an impressive 1 KB of RAM and a BASIC interpreter in ROM. It was my first contact with a high-level programming language. I was really astonished. This computer seemed to understand me! “Print 1+1.” “Ok, that’s 2.” One year later, I bought my first computer, an Apple II. It came with a much more powerful BASIC interpreter in ROM, AppleSoft Basic. (This interpreter was developed for Apple by a small company named Microsoft, but that’s another story.)

PHOTO 1: An online emulator for my old Apple II

PHOTO 1: An online emulator for my old Apple II

Now let’s launch an Apple II emulator and write some software for it. Look at Photo 1. Nice, isn’t it? This pretty emulator, developed in JavaScript by Will Scullin, is available online. Just launch it, enter this 10-line program, and then type “RUN”. It will calculate for you the factorial of eight: 8! = 1 × 2 × 3 × 4 × 5 × 6 × 7 × 8, which is 40,320.

Since its invention in 1964 at Dartmouth College, BASIC is more of a concept than a well-specified language. Plenty of variants exist up to Microsoft’s Visual Basic. But it has plenty of disadvantages, especially its early versions: a lack of structured data and controls, mandatory line numbering, a lack of type checking, low speed, and so on. Nevertheless, it is ultra-simple to learn and to understand. Even if you have never used BASIC, you’ll understand the code shown in Photo 1 without any problem. The main program starts by initializing a variable N with the value 8. I then calls a subprogram that starts at line 100, displays the result F, and stops. The subprogram initializes F to 1 and multiplies the result by each integer up to N. Straightforward.


Let compare this BASIC with a C version of the same algorithm. For this article, I looked for online compilers and simulators. I found a great option at, which, developed by Sphere Research Labs, supports more than 60 programming languages. You can edit a program using any of them, compile it, and test it without having to install anything on your PC. This is great for experimenting.

PHOTO 2: At, you can enter, compile, and simulate numerous programming languages. Here you see C language.

PHOTO 2: At, you can enter, compile, and simulate numerous programming languages. Here you see C language.

The C variant of the factorial algorithm is depicted in Photo 2. I could have used plenty of different approaches, but I tried to stay as close as possible to the “spirit” of C. So, how does it compare with BASIC? The code is significantly more structured, but a little harder to read. C aficionados loves short forms like f*=i++ (which multiplies f by i and then increments i) even when they can be avoided. While this makes the code shorter and helps the compiler with optimization, it is probably cryptic to someone new to the language.

Of course, C also has great strengths. In particular, it offers you precise control of the data types and memory representation, which helps for low level programming. That’s probably why it has been so widely for nearly 50 years.


Let’s stay in the 1970s. BASIC or assembly language was for hobbyists and experimenters. C was used by early UNIX programmers. The rest of the programming world was divided into two camps. Scientifics used FORTRAN. Business leaders used COBOL.

FORTRAN (from FORmula TRANslation) was actually the first high-level programming language. Developed by an IBM team led by John Backus, the first version of FORTRAN was released in 1957 for the IBM 704 computer. It was followed by several incremental improvements: Fortran 66 (1966), Fortran 77, and Fortran 90, all the way up to Fortran 2008. Refer to Listing 1 for the factorial program using FORTRAN 77.

LISTING 1: This is the factorial program using FORTRAN 77.

LISTING 1: This is the factorial program using FORTRAN 77.

It seems close to BASIC, right? That’s not a surprise as BASIC was in fact based on concepts from FORTRAN and from another disapeared language, ALGOL. I’m sure that you are able to read and understand the FORTRAN in Listing 1, but its equivalent in COBOL is a bit stranger (see Listing 2). I must admit that it took me some time to make it working, even after reading some COBOL tutorials on the web. COBOL is an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language, so it is not exactly targeting an application like a factorial calculation. It was developed in 1959 by a consortium named CODASYL, based on works from Grace Hopper. Even though its popularity fading, COBOL is still alive. I even read that an object-oriented version was released in 2002 (COBOL 2002) and even upgraded in 2014.

LISTING 2: The COBOL version looks a little stranger, right?

LISTING 2: The COBOL version looks a little stranger, right?


I never actually used FORTRAN or COBOL, but I developed software on my Apple II using PASCAL. Released in 1970 by Niklaus Wirth (ETH Zurich, Swizerland), PASCAL was probably one of the earliest efforts to encourage structured and typed programming. Based on ALGOL-W (also invented by Wirth), it was followed by MODULA-2 and OBERON, which were less known but still influential.

Do you want to calculate a factorial in PASCAL? Here it is Listing 3. It may look familiar to FORTRAN or BASIC, but its advantages are in the details. PASCAL is a so-called strongly typed language. (You can’t add a tomato and a donut, contrarily to C.) It also forbids unstructured programming and it is very easy to read. PASCAL was a limited, but true, success. It was used in particular by Apple for the development of the Lisa computer as well as the first versions of the Macintosh. It is still in use today through one of its object-oriented versions, DELPHI.

LISTING 3: This is the PASCAL version. Easy to read.

LISTING 3: This is the PASCAL version. Easy to read.


In the 1970s, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) conducted a survey and found that they were using no less than 450 different programming languages. So, it decided to define and develop yet another one—that is, a new language to replace all of them. After long specification and selection phases, a proposal from Jean Ichbiah (CII Honeywell Bull, France) was selected. The result was ADA. The name ADA, and its military standard reference (MIL-STD-1815), are in memory of Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852), who created of the first actual algorithms intended for a machine.

While ADA is, well, strongly typed and very powerful, it’s complex and quite boring to use (see Listing 4). The key advantage of ADA is that it is well standardized and supports constructs like concurrency. Thanks to its very formal syntax and type checking, it is nearly bug-proof. Based on my minimal experience, it is so strict that the first version of the code usually works, at least after you correct hundreds of compilation errors. That’s probably why it is still largely used for critical applications ranging from airplanes to military systems, even if it failed as a generic language.

LISTING 4: ADA is more verbose.

LISTING 4: ADA is more verbose.


ADA is a difficult language. In my opinion, LISP (List Processing) is far more interesting. It is an old story too. Designed in 1960 by John McCarthy (Stanford University), its concepts are still interesting to learn. McCarthy’s goal was to develop a simple language with full capabilities. That’s quite the opposite of ADA. The result was LISP. The syntax can be frightening, but you must try it. Listing 5 is a version of the factorial calculation in LISP.

LISTING 5: LISP is definitively fun!

LISTING 5: LISP is definitively fun!

In LISP, everything is a list, and a list is enclosed between parentheses. To execute a function, you have to create a list with a pointer to the function as a first element and then the parameters. For example, (- n 1) is a list that calculates n – 1. (if A B C) is a structure which evaluates A, and then evaluates either B or C based on the value of A. If you read this program, you will see that it is not based on a loop like all other versions I’ve presented, but on a concept called recursion. A factorial of a number is calculated as 1 if the number is 0, and as N times the factorial of (N – 1) otherwise. LISP was in fact the first language to support recursion—meaning, the possibility for a function to call itself again and again. It is also the first language to manage storage automatically, using garbage collection. Even more interesting, in LISP everything is a list, even a program. So in LISP, it is possible to develop a program that generates a program and executes it!

Another of my favorites is FORTH. Designed by Charles Moore in 1968, FORTH also supports self-modifying programs like LISP, and it is probably even more minimalist. FORTH is based on the concept of a stack, and operators push and pop data from this stack. It uses a postfix syntax, also named Reversed Polish Notation, like vintage Hewlett-Packard calculators. For example, 1 2 + . means “push 1 on the stack,” “push 2 on the stack,” “get two figures from the stack, add them and put the result back on the stack,” and “get a figure from the stack and display it.”

Here is our factorial program in FORTH:

: fact dup 1 do I * loop ; 8 fact .

The first line defines a new function named fact, and the second line executes it after pushing the value 8 on the stack. The syntax is of course a bit strange due to the postfixing but it is clear after a while. Let’s start with 8 on the stack. The command dup duplicates the top of the stack. The do…loop structure gets count and first index from the stack so it executes I * with I varying from 1 to 7, and each iteration multiplies the top of the stack by the index I. That’s it. You can try it using another web-based programming and simulation host: Look at the result in Photo 3.

PHOTO 3: This is an example of FORTH in the online compiler and simulator.

PHOTO 3: This is an example of FORTH in the online compiler and simulator.


LISP and FORTH are fun, but PROLOG is stranger. Developed by Alain Colmerauer and his team in 1972, PROLOG is the first of the so-called declarative languages. Rather than specifying an algorithm, such a declarative language defines facts and rules. It then lets the system determine if another fact can be deduced from them. An example is welcome.

LISTING 6: The PROLOG version based on a completely different paradigm.

LISTING 6: The PROLOG version based on a completely different paradigm.

Listing 6 is our factorial in PROLOG. The first fact states that the factorial of any number lower than 2 is 1. The second fact states that the factorial of any number X is F only if F is the product of X and another number, named here FM1, and if FM1 is the factorial of X – 1. This looks like a recursion, and this is recursion, but expressed differently. Then the last line states that X is the factorial of 8 and ask PROLOG to display X, and you will have the result. This is a confusing approach, but it is close to the needs of artificial intelligence algorithms.

Lastly, I can’t resist to the pleasure to show you another exotic vintage programming language, A Programming Language (APL). Refer to the factorial example in APL in Photo 4. I can’t even write it in the text of this article because APL uses nonstandard characters.

PHOTO 4: APL looks great, right? It’s unique keyboard alone is fun!

PHOTO 4: APL looks great, right? It’s unique keyboard alone is fun!

In fact, APL-enabled computers had APL-specific keyboards! Published in 1962 by Kenneth Iverson (Harvard University and then IBM), it was firstly a mathematical notation and then a programming language. Based largely on data arrays, APL targets numerical calculations so it isn’t a surprise to see that our factorial example is so compact in this language. Let’s understand it by reading the first line from right to left. The omega Greek symbol is the parameter of the function (that is, 8 in this case). The small symbol just before the omega called “iota” is generating a vector from 0 to N – 1, so here it is generating 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. The 1+ is adding one to each element of the array. This gives 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Lastly, the x/ asks to multiply each value of the vector, which is the factorial!


After finishing this article, I searched the web for other interesting languages and found, well, a more than impressive website. Launch your browser right now and enter These crazy guys simply listed 837 programming tasks, and let the community program each of them with all programming languages. Yes, all of them, and no less than 648 different languages are referenced! Of course, I searched for a factorial calculation algorithm and found it. Versions of the factorial code for 220 different languages are provided! So, you can find similar versions to the ones I provided in this article as versions for more recent languages (Java, Python, Perl, etc.). You will also find obscure languages.

My goal with this article was to show you that languages other than C and JAVA can be fun and even helpful for specific projects. Vintage languages are not dead. For example, it seems that FORTH was used for NASA’s Rosetta mission. Moreover, innovation in computing languages goes on, and new and exciting alternatives are proposed every month!

Don’t hesitate to play with and test programming languages. The web is an invaluable tool for discovering new tools, so have fun!

This article appears in Circuit Cellar 323.

Robert Lacoste lives in France, between Paris and Versailles. He has 30 years of experience in RF systems, analog designs, and high speed electronics. Robert has won prizes in more than 15 international design contests. In 2003 he started a consulting company, ALCIOM, to share his passion for innovative mixed-signal designs. Robert’s bimonthly Darker Side column has been published in Circuit cellar since 2007.

One Professor and Two Orderly Labs

Professor Wolfgang Matthes has taught microcontroller design, computer architecture, and electronics (both digital and analog) at the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund, Germany, since 1992. He has developed peripheral subsystems for mainframe computers and conducted research related to special-purpose and universal computer architectures for the past 25 years.

When asked to share a description and images of his workspace with Circuit Cellar, he stressed that there are two labs to consider: the one at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts and the other in his home basement.

Here is what he had to say about the two labs and their equipment:

In both labs, rather conventional equipment is used. My regular duties are essentially concerned  with basic student education and hands-on training. Obviously, one does not need top-notch equipment for such comparatively humble purposes.

Student workplaces in the Dortmund lab are equipped for basic training in analog electronics.

Student workplaces in the Dortmund lab are equipped for basic training in analog electronics.

In adjacent rooms at the Dortmund lab, students pursue their own projects, working with soldering irons, screwdrivers, drills,  and other tools. Hence, these rooms are  occasionally called the blacksmith’s shop. Here two such workplaces are shown.

In adjacent rooms at the Dortmund lab, students pursue their own projects, working with soldering irons, screwdrivers, drills, and other tools. Hence, these rooms are occasionally called “the blacksmith’s shop.” Two such workstations are shown.

Oscilloscopes, function generators, multimeters, and power supplies are of an intermediate price range. I am fond of analog scopes, because they don’t lie. I wonder why neither well-established suppliers nor entrepreneurs see a business opportunity in offering quality analog scopes, something that could be likened to Rolex watches or Leica analog cameras.

The orderly lab at home is shown here.

The orderly lab in Matthes’s home is shown here.

Matthes prefers to build his  projects so that they are mechanically sturdy. So his lab is equipped appropriately.

Matthes prefers to build mechanically sturdy projects. So his lab is appropriately equipped.

Matthes, whose research interests include advanced computer architecture and embedded systems design, pursues a variety of projects in his workspace. He describes some of what goes on in his lab:

The projects comprise microcontroller hardware and software, analog and digital circuitry, and personal computers.

Personal computer projects are concerned with embedded systems, hardware add-ons, interfaces, and equipment for troubleshooting. For writing software, I prefer PowerBASIC. Those compilers generate executables, which run efficiently and show a small footprint. Besides, they allow for directly accessing the Windows API and switching to Assembler coding, if necessary.

Microcontroller software is done in Assembler and, if required, in C or BASIC (BASCOM). As the programming language of the toughest of the tough, Assembler comes second after wire [i.e., the soldering iron].

My research interests are directed at computer architecture, instruction sets, hardware, and interfaces between hardware and software. To pursue appropriate projects, programming at the machine level is mandatory. In student education, introductory courses begin with the basics of computer architecture and machine-level programming. However, Assembler programming is only taught at a level that is deemed necessary to understand the inner workings of the machine and to write small time-critical routines. The more sophisticated application programming is usually done in C.

Real work is shown here at the digital analog computer—bring-up and debugging of the master controller board. Each of the six microcontrollers is connected to a general-purpose human-interface module.

A digital analog computer in Matthes’s home lab works on master controller board bring-up and debugging. Each of the six microcontrollers is connected to a general-purpose human-interface module.

Additional photos of Matthes’s workspace and his embedded electronics and micrcontroller projects are available at his new website.




A Love of Teaching, a Lifetime of Robotics: An Interview with John Blankenship

John Blankenship

John Blankenship

John Blankenship has spent decades teaching robotics—and written many books on the subject. His love of teaching inspired him to co-develop the RobotBASIC robot programming language. I recently caught up with John to discuss some highlights from his teaching career and what’s next for RobotBASIC—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 NAN: How did you become interested in robotics?

JOHN: As a child, I often saw robots on television but was fully aware that there were no computers capable of making such fictional creations a reality. In the 1970s, microprocessors such as Intel’s 8080 and MOS Technology’s 6502 gave me hope that real robots would eventually become part of our future.

I found I could motivate my students by linking lab projects to robotic topics. For example, instead of just graphing the output from an active filter, I had my students use op-amps to detect an ultrasonic wave so they could later build a ranging sensor. I firmly believe that if you want to motivate students, you must give them projects with a purpose.

 NAN: You spent more than 30 years teaching programming, electronics, and robotics. What did you gain from that experience?

 JOHN: I enjoyed teaching electronics, but I loved teaching programming. Nothing else even comes close to develop critical thinking skills in students. Watching those skills develop was the reason I taught.

After seeing how my hardware robotic projects motivated students, I knew I wanted something similar for my programming classes. Eventually I developed a library of C routines that simulated a simple on-screen robot. What made the simulated robot special is that it supported numerous sensors (an electronic compass, two levels of proximity sensors, a ranging sensor, line detection, beacon detection, color tracking, and more) that enabled students to solve relatively complex, real-world robotics problems without building any hardware.

This structure made programming fun because it gave programming assignments a purpose. Students no longer had to be convinced that it was important to learn the syntax for a loop or how “if” statements controlled flow to make decisions—they wanted to learn details so they could use them to solve the exciting problems being proposed for them. Which would you find more exciting: writing a program to count the number of words in a string or teaching a robot to follow a line? Better yet, imagine motivating students by having a contest to see whose robot could follow a line the fastest.

NAN: How and why did you develop the RobotBASIC programming language?


RobotBASIC can control real robots just as easily as the simulation.

 JOHN: When I retired from teaching I wanted a way for other teachers to utilize a simulated robot to motivate their students. I could have just published my C libraries, but that generally would have limited their use to college classes where C is usually taught. I felt strongly that much younger students needed to be introduced to programming so they could develop not just logical thought, but also an appreciation for math and engineering.

I love the C language (RobotBASIC is written in C), but in my opinion, it is far too cryptic to be used as a first language. I wanted to encase my routines in a BASIC-like language that would enable nearly anyone to program a simulated robot.

I began writing my own language and was reasonably pleased with the initial efforts. I demonstrated the program to a good friend of mine, Samuel Mishal, who is easily the greatest programmer I have ever known. After politely applauding my efforts, he showed me an interpreter he had been working on to help him with a DSP project. His language was very polished and far superior to my work. He integrated my simulator with his interpreter and we named it RobotBASIC.

Even though we planned from start to freely distribute RobotBASIC, we knew teachers could not devote time to learning a language that was just a robot simulator. We began adding new features and capabilities. The more we added, the more excited we became. We started testing the new language by developing robotic behaviors and writing simple video games. Every time we needed something special, we added it to the language.


RobotBASIC has all the commands necessary to write simple video games.

RobotBASIC currently has nearly 900 commands and functions—far more than most languages. More importantly though, since there are built-in functions to handle many things programmers normally have to do themselves, the language is very fast for an interpreter.

We felt RobotBASIC was an ideal language for introducing high school students to programming, but we wanted more. We added hardware I/O capabilities and created a wireless protocol that enabled RobotBASIC to control real robots with the same programs that control the simulation. At that point, the language could easily handle college-level projects but we knew the BASIC stigma would be a problem. To help with this, we added the option to use a modified C-style syntax, making it easier for students to transition to C or even Java.


This simulation shows the effects of friction on a spring’s movement.

We also decided to address some backward capability by adding legacy-style I/O commands, making it easy to teach basic programming skills to even fifth graders. This enables school systems to utilize RobotBASIC from lower grades through high school without having to teach a new environment when new capabilities are needed. And if the C-style syntax is introduced in the upper grades, students will be better prepared for college programming courses.

 NAN: What are some uses for RobotBASIC?

JOHN: Even though students’ needs were a driving force in our development process, RobotBASIC’s I/O capabilities make it a great language for hobbyists involved with robotics or other electronic-oriented projects. For example, it only takes a few lines of code to gather data from a remote temperature sensor using a wireless link and to transmit that information to another user over the Internet.

RobotBASIC also has many commands that facilitate flicker-free animation and simulation. This means teachers have the option of motivating students by teaching how to write simple video games.

As much as I love the robot simulator, I have to admit that many students get even more excited about animation than they do about robots. The point is that RobotBASIC provides many options.


The simulated robot can be programmed to solve a maze.

 NAN: You offer several types of RobotBASIC seminars geared toward children, university students, and robot clubs. You also lead seminars introducing programming and robotics. What do you enjoy most about teaching? What do attendees gain from your seminars?

 JOHN: I love teaching and I especially love showing teachers new ways to motivate their students. I understand that every school and teacher is different and I make sure I satisfy their goals by customizing each and every presentation based on their individual needs. I am always amazed that schools can’t believe that RobotBASIC is totally free. There are no acquisition costs, no upgrade fees, and no licenses—ever! RobotBASIC is free for hobbyists too. Circuit Cellar readers can download a copy from

 NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any robotics-related projects?


The speed and flight path of these darts is controlled with finger movements on a tablet’s touchscreen.

JOHN: Many RobotBASIC users have been asking for a more advanced book on animation and video games. Unfortunately, my work on our new RobotBASIC Robot Operating System (On a Chip) has been monopolizing all my time for the last couple of years. Now that it is finally finished, I have started writing again.  I think the new book will be worth the wait because it also discusses how RobotBASIC can interact with the new Windows 8 sensors (e.g., cameras, compass, accelerometer, touchscreen, etc.) The chapter I am currently working on enables darts to be thrown using finger movements on a tablet’s touchscreen.

NAN: Do you have any advice for Circuit Cellar readers who are considering building their own autonomous robots?

 JOHN: I think the biggest mistake most robot hobbyists make is they spend far too much time constructing a robot before having a detailed understanding of its sensory needs and the algorithms necessary to accomplish their goals. If they would test their ideas first with our simulator, they would have the information necessary to build a platform that can actually meet their needs. Furthermore, they could control their real robot with the very same programs they developed on the simulator.

I/O Raspberry Pi Expansion Card

The RIO is an I/O expansion card intended for use with the Raspberry Pi SBC. The card stacks on top of a Raspberry Pi to create a powerful embedded control and navigation computer in a small 20-mm × 65-mm × 85-mm footprint. The RIO is well suited for applications requiring real-world interfacing, such as robotics, industrial and home automation, and data acquisition and control.

RoboteqThe RIO adds 13 inputs that can be configured as digital inputs, 0-to-5-V analog inputs with 12-bit resolution, or pulse inputs capable of pulse width, duty cycle, or frequency capture. Eight digital outputs are provided to drive loads up to 1 A each at up to 24 V.
The RIO includes a 32-bit ARM Cortex M4 microcontroller that processes and buffers the I/O and creates a seamless communication with the Raspberry Pi. The RIO processor can be user-programmed with a simple BASIC-like programming language, enabling it to perform logic, conditioning, and other I/O processing in real time. On the Linux side, RIO comes with drivers and a function library to quickly configure and access the I/O and to exchange data with the Raspberry Pi.

The RIO features several communication interfaces, including an RS-232 serial port to connect to standard serial devices, a TTL serial port to connect to Arduino and other microcontrollers that aren’t equipped with a RS-232 transceiver, and a CAN bus interface.
The RIO is available in two versions. The RIO-BASIC costs $85 and the RIO-AHRS costs $175.

Roboteq, Inc.