Fortran: Technical Background & Importance

Diana Ipacs

December 12, 2023

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Learn all about Fortran: how it revolutionized programming, its core technical aspects, and why it remains important in certain domains.


Fortran was introduced by IBM in the 1950s as a groundbreaking high-level programming language. Developed primarily for scientific and engineering applications, it established several precedents and played a significant role in the history of computational technology. In its formative years, programming was a specialized field, and it necessitated an in-depth understanding of hardware and binary logic, often posing accessibility challenges.

This programming language introduced a notable paradigm shift by abstracting these complex details, paving the way for more user-centric and efficient scientific computation.

Fortran is a high-level programming language designed for scientific and engineering computations, known for introducing pioneering concepts such as loop constructs and conditionals.

While its usage has waned in general software development, Fortran remains influential in specific domains, particularly for legacy systems and applications requiring robust numerical computation.

Let's take a closer look at Fortran, how and why it appeared, its use today in legacy systems and more!

Fortran – Bluebird Blog

Fortran History: The Beginnings

In the 1950s, IBM sought to create a language that could efficiently translate mathematical formulas into code. Driven by a vision of simplifying computation for scientists and engineers, Fortran (short for "Formula Translation") rapidly became a cornerstone of programming.

Prior to its creation, programming was a labor-intensive task that often involved intimate knowledge of machine code. With Fortran, a clear, concise, and remarkably powerful language came into being, empowering users to focus on the logic of their problems rather than the intricacies of the machines they were using.

Fortran's architectural design and the accelerated problem-solving abilities it offered had profound effects on the scientific and engineering communities. Its development constituted a leap forward from manual computation to automated programming, altering the landscape of computational science for good.

From Punchcards to Binary: A Technological Leap

Before this programming language was born, punchcard programming was the standard, requiring individuals to physically punch holes into cards to represent data and instructions. This method was not only time-consuming but also prone to errors. Fortran's arrival coincided with the binary code evolution, transitioning from the tangible limitations of punchcards to the abstract elegance of binary language. This shift to binary code significantly streamlined the programming process and reduced the potential for human error, offering a new level of precision and efficiency in computation.

The Evolution of Fortran: Versions and Enhancements

Fortran's adaptability has been demonstrated through its many versions and enhancements. From its first version, Fortran I, released by IBM in 1957, to subsequent iterations like Fortran II and Fortran IV, each brought optimizations and new features that expanded its capabilities and performance.

Modern Fortran standards, such as Fortran 90, 95, 2003, and the later 2008 and 2018, have introduced concepts like module-based programming, object-oriented programming, and concurrent computing. These improvements reflect its enduring legacy in adapting to the evolving demands of computation while maintaining its core strengths of mathematical and scientific computing prowess.

Understanding Fortran: A High-Level Language

Fortran stands out as a quintessential high-level programming language. Designed to prioritize the programmer's convenience, it abstracts complex operations into simpler, more readable components, greatly enhancing computational efficiency.

Defining Characteristics of High-Level Languages

High-level programming languages like Fortran are engineered to simplify the coding experience, offering powerful abstraction from the intricacies of machine code. This abstraction is crucial as it allows for:

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    Increased legibility and maintainability of code.
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    A reduction in the complexity of programming structures.
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    Improved productivity for developers, especially during the debugging and testing phases.

The user-friendliness of high-level programming languages has made them essential for rapid software development and maintenance.

Fortran's Syntax and Structure

Fortran’s syntax echoes its high-level classification through its readability and organized structure. It is marked by:

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    Rigorous but intuitive syntax rules, which enhanced readability.
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    Flexible array handling capabilities, crucial for data-intensive computations.
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    Modular programming features that facilitate the reuse of code segments.

The structure of Fortran is such that it strongly supports mathematical and scientific computation, allowing it to withstand the test of time in these fields.

Simplifying Complex Calculations

At its core, Fortran was created to handle complex numerical calculations with unparalleled efficiency. Its design features allow scientists and engineers to:

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    Model sophisticated mathematical functions with ease.
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    Compile code that runs at near-machine speed, ensuring minimal performance loss.
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    Process large datasets effectively, a necessity in many scientific applications.

Such capabilities make Fortran an enduring language in areas where precision and computational speed are paramount.

Fortran: Technical Details

Understanding Fortran's key features—from its unique programming paradigms and data structures to its powerful array handling and computational efficiency—is essential for programmers working in these specialized fields. The language's enduring relevance is underpinned by its adaptability, efficiency, and the continued evolution of its standards and tools, making it a stalwart in the world of scientific programming.

Programming Paradigm

Initially procedural, the programming language has evolved to support array programming, modular programming, and, in the later standards, object-oriented programming concepts.

It allows for both imperative and declarative (especially with array operations) programming styles.

Data Types and Structures

Fortran supports standard primitive data types like integer, real, complex, logical, and character. It also allows for user-defined types.

Arrays are a fundamental aspect of Fortran, with powerful array handling and operations capabilities, which is crucial for numerical and scientific computations.

Syntax and Control Structures

Fortran syntax is known for being concise and efficient, especially for mathematical operations.

It includes control structures like DO loops, IF statements, and CASE constructs, which are similar to those in other high-level languages but often with a syntax more oriented towards numerical operations.

Subroutines and Functions

Fortran uses subroutines and functions for modular programming. Functions return values, while subroutines are used for operations that might return multiple values or modify their arguments.

It supports pass-by-reference by default, which is different from many languages that use pass-by-value.

Parallel and High-Performance Computing

Fortran is highly suited for high-performance computing. It provides intrinsic support for parallel computing, particularly with its later standards (Fortran 90 onwards).

Features like co-arrays and parallel loops facilitate efficient parallel execution.

Memory Management

Fortran assumes a static memory model by default, but dynamic memory allocation is supported using pointers and allocatable arrays, especially in the newer standards.

Automatic array features allow arrays to be allocated dynamically based on the size needed at runtime.


Modern Fortran standards provide interoperability with C, allowing programmers to call C functions and use C data types, which is useful in mixed-language programming environments.

File I/O and Formatting

It provides extensive support for file input/output operations with a focus on formatted and unformatted data files, crucial for scientific data.

It allows detailed control over data formatting, which is beneficial for both reading from and writing to files.

Error Handling

Error handling in Fortran is typically done through the use of status codes and the ERROR STOP and STOP statements, although it's less sophisticated compared to exception handling mechanisms in languages like Python or Java.

Compiler and Development Tools

Several compilers are available for Fortran, ranging from open-source options like GNU Fortran (gfortran) to commercial compilers that often offer performance optimizations.

Development tools and environments might be less modern compared to those available for languages like Java or Python, but they are quite efficient for numerical computing tasks.

Understanding these technical aspects provides a solid foundation for programmers to work effectively with Fortran, especially in scientific and numerical programming where its strengths are most pronounced.

Fortran As a Preferred Option In Numerical & Scientific Computing

This programming language is still a legitimate and often preferred option in numerical and scientific computing. Despite the emergence of newer programming languages, Fortran retains several strengths that make it relevant in these fields:

Performance: Fortran is known for its high performance in numerical calculations. It is especially efficient in handling array operations and complex mathematical computations, which are common in scientific computing.

Optimized Libraries: There are numerous well-optimized libraries in Fortran for scientific computations, which have been developed and refined over decades. These libraries offer robust and tested solutions for a wide range of scientific needs.

Legacy Code: Many scientific and engineering projects have extensive legacy codebases written in this programming language. Rewriting these codes in a different language is often impractical both in terms of time and cost.

Domain-Specific Usage: In certain domains like meteorology, physics, and engineering, Fortran continues to be a standard due to its proven reliability and efficiency in handling the specific types of computations required in these fields.

Community and Support: There remains a dedicated community of users and developers in the scientific computing world who maintain and update Fortran standards and libraries, ensuring the language stays relevant and efficient.

While Fortran may not be the first choice for new projects that require more general-purpose programming or have a strong emphasis on modern software engineering practices, its efficiency, specialized libraries, and ongoing support keep it very much in the game for scientific and numerical computing tasks.

Fortran Applications Today

Legacy systems that stand as pillars of industry sectors such as aerospace, weather forecasting, and defense frequently rely on Fortran applications. In these fields, the reliance on proven and stable systems is critical, and modern Fortran's adaptability affords continuous improvements without overhauling the foundational code. Its prevalence in these demanding realms not only underlines its versatility but also its reliability in areas where failure permissions are non-negotiable.


Systems that manage military simulations and flight dynamics often use it to handle large-scale computations and real-time processing.


Design and testing of aircraft are anchored in Fortran's ability to provide sophisticated computational aerodynamics.


Weather prediction models built with Fortran forecast events with increased accuracy, helping to save lives and protect resources.

Notably, legacy systems in scientific computing have been incrementally updated, demonstrating how modern Fortran continues to evolve alongside emerging technologies, thereby securing its place in the high-performance computing landscape.

Cons of Fortran

While renowned for its high efficiency in numerical and scientific computing and possessing a wealth of mature libraries and legacy code, particularly in scientific and engineering fields, Fortran presents notable drawbacks.

Its syntax is less intuitive than modern languages like Python, posing a steeper learning curve for new programmers. This characteristic, coupled with its limited applicability in general software development such as web, mobile, and desktop applications, narrows its utility in the diverse landscape of modern programming. Furthermore, Fortran's community is smaller compared to those of languages like Java or JavaScript, leading to fewer contemporary learning resources and modern tools.

This lack of extensive support and the relatively archaic nature of its syntax and application scope significantly diminish Fortran's appeal in the rapidly evolving world of technology. Despite its historical significance and stability, these limitations hinder Fortran's relevance and adaptability to current and future programming challenges.

Is There A Need for Fortran Skills in the Job Market in 2024 and Beyond?

The job market has been unequivocally disruptive in redefining skill sets for software developers, often prioritizing modern, trendier languages. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of job market demand for Fortran expertise paints a different picture.

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    In meteorology and oceanographic modeling, Fortran remains an in-demand skill, with job posts frequently listing it as a requirement.
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    Older infrastructures in government and private sector research labs often require maintenance and upgrades of Fortran-based systems, necessitating knowledgeable programmers.
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    Industries harnessing legacy software for critical operations still offer career opportunities for those proficient in Fortran, albeit within niche markets.

The conversation around Fortran and its position reveals a nuanced view of an enduring language that continues to serve its cohort of specialized applications very well.

Fortran Programming Language: FAQs

Q: What is Fortran in the context of programming languages?

Fortran, short for Formula Translation, is one of the oldest high-level programming languages, developed by IBM in the 1950s. It was created for scientific and mathematical computations and is known for its efficiency in numerical operations, making it revolutionary in the early days of computing.

Q: How did it revolutionize programming?

Fortran was revolutionary because it was one of the first high-level languages, allowing programmers to write code using more natural mathematical syntax instead of machine code or assembly language. This significantly reduced programming time and errors, making it easier to create and maintain complex scientific and engineering programs.

Q: What are some typical applications?

Fortran is predominantly used in scientific and engineering fields. It's employed in areas like computational physics, chemistry, meteorology for weather modeling, aerospace for flight simulation, and structural engineering. Its ability to efficiently handle complex mathematical calculations makes it ideal for these applications.

Q: How does it work, especially in modern computing?

Modern Fortran, with standards like Fortran 90/95/2003/2008, supports array programming, object-oriented programming, and parallel processing. This makes it suitable for high-performance computing tasks. It works by translating mathematical and scientific formulas into efficient machine code, which is then executed for various computational tasks.

Q: Why is Fortran still used, given the advent of newer programming languages?

Fortran remains in use due to its unparalleled efficiency in numerical computation and the existence of extensive legacy code in critical scientific and engineering applications. Its specialized libraries and the cost and complexity of porting code to other languages also contribute to its ongoing use.

Q: Are there limitations to using Fortran in modern programming?

Of course. This programming language has obvious limitations, including a less intuitive syntax compared to newer languages, making it less accessible to beginners. It's also less versatile for general-purpose programming, like web development. Furthermore, the smaller user community means fewer modern resources and support compared to languages like Python or Java.

Q: Can it be integrated with other modern programming languages?

It can be integrated with other programming languages like C, C++, and Python. This is often done in scientific computing where Fortran's computational efficiency is needed, but other functionalities are better handled by more modern languages.

Q: What is the future outlook for Fortran in programming?

It's expected to remain relevant in fields that rely on high-performance numerical computations. Ongoing updates to the language standards aim to enhance its capabilities while maintaining its core strengths in scientific computation. However, its role in more general software development is likely to continue diminishing in favor of more versatile and user-friendly languages.

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