What is the Fortran Programming Language?

Posted on by Jackie Cowan | Updated:
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Fortran is a general-purpose computer programming language that is especially suited to scientific computing problems.

The high-level programming language maintains popularity due to its speed. Fortran programs run at high speeds, which are only comparable to a handful of languages such as C++. Fortran also has features that programmers prefer over C++, like less of a need to worry about memory allocation and optimization.

The History of Fortran

IBM developed Fortran in the 1950s. Its name comes from a contraction of Formula Translation, highlighting its intended use in mathematical calculations with the first compiler for the language released in 1957.

Within a year, the second iteration of the language, Fortran II, had appeared. This iteration only included 32 different statements, making it a small but powerful language. The following decade saw the release of Fortran III and Fortran IV.

In these early years, there was no standard for the language, which led to the rise of dozens of variants and different compilers. To solve the problem, the American Standards Association released its first standard for the language in 1966. As this version became widespread, it began to be known as Fortran 66.

Although standardization was welcomed in the software community, different variants continued to emerge. The American Standards Association would continue to revise the language with new versions such as Fortran 77.

Later versions introduced concepts such as the block IF and END IF statements to improve structured programming and write inline comments. Many of these innovative features can be seen in programming languages (e.g., C++, Java, Python, etc.) that exist today.

Many popular languages of the past 40 years have not just copied some of Fortran’s features but also taken massive influence from the language. C, possibly the most popular language globally, and BASIC, one of the most popular languages of the 1980s, were both heavily influenced by Fortran.

Fortran’s evolution is parallel to the evolution of compiler technology by some researchers, with new compiler techniques created to run more efficient Fortran programs.

Where is Fortran Used?

Fortran is still prevalent in high-performance computing fields that require computational science. Notable examples of Fortran programs include NEMO (Nucleus for European Modelling of the Ocean), the OFF fluid dynamics code, and Goddard Institute for Space Studies models. 

Fortran also remains popular among a wide variety of climate modeling programs because mathematical formulae are converted into code with ease, its performance is speedy, and much of the climate modeling community understands the language.

The TIOBE Index, which measures the popularity of hundreds of programming languages, ranked Fortran as the 20th most popular language in the world in April 2021. Even though other programming languages rose in popularity during the 21st century, Fortran’s continued presence in high-performance computing fields indicates it is not going anywhere.


Fortran is a popular programming language that has been around for almost 70 years. Originally developed for mathematical programming and scientific computations, Fortran is used by government and environmental groups.

Expand your technical horizons by checking out some of our other Knowledge Base topics like What is the Difference Between AI and Machine Learning, What is a Virtual Machine, and How Do I Secure My Linux Server.

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About the Author: Jackie Cowan

Jackie Cowan is the Communications Manager for Liquid Web. She received her MS in Communications from the Ithaca College, MLIS in Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and BBA in Management Information Systems from the University of Michigan. She has 10 years of experience with technical and billing support, search engine optimization, and spearheading projects to enhance company culture.

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