I'm trying to figure out year when the term "program" was firstly used is the meaning ‘a series of coded instructions which directs a computer in carrying out a specific task’.

Additionally I need a book/paper/essay where I can read this definition.

Let me explain. For example here https://www.etymonline.com/word/program stated that it happened in 1945, but without any proof or document names.

On the other hand, in a 1947 document "Planning and Coding Problems for an Electronic Computing Instrument, Part 1" by H. Goldstine and J. von Neumann. It is stated:

We call the coded sequence of a problem a routine

So not a program, but a routine.

Moreover in 1949 at the Cambridge conference, David Wheeler (EDSAC designer) wrote:

A PROGRAMME is a flowchart showing the operations (in block form) corresponding to the action of the calculator during the solution of the problem.

A ROUTINE is the programme written in the detailed code of a particular machine.

Again it is routine not a program.

So I can not find any proofs from 1945, 1947 and 1949 that the term program means ‘series of coded instructions which directs a computer in carrying out a specific task’

  • 4
    THe use of programme to describe a playbill dates back to 1805. In this sense it's a list of works to be performed. That's outside the spirit of the question, but it's usage that clearly precedes the usage in computer program Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 10:15
  • Wasn't "Linear Programming" used to solve logistics problems during war? Used to solve for deliveries that have various constraints. I remember this from an operations management class and I seem to remember that this bled into machines solving these kinds of problems rather than people doing them by hand.
    – Issel
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 14:05
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    @Issel Yes, linear programming was introduced by Dantzig in 1947, and it seems like "program" was meant to refer to things like "supply programs" in military planning. It's interesting that computer programs precede linear programming. (See the section Origin of certain terms -- Dantzig makes it clear he hadn't even heard of "program" referring to instruction codes back then!) Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 19:32
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    @WalterMitty If I recall correctly "programme" was alrady used (in French) for pattern-instructions (punch-card or punch-tape like system) of mechanical weaving looms (Jacquard looms) in the 18th century. And for the playing instructions for all sort of mechanical music-boxes in the form of cylinders, disks or (again) punch-cards/tape like mechanisms. It certainly predates computer-programming by at least a century.
    – Tonny
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 11:38
  • By 1951, 'program' (*) was being used by Wilkes, Wheeler, and Gill for the sequence of coded instructions themselves, as for example can be seen in The Preparation of Programs for an Electronic Digital Computer. (*) Regrettably, with that spelling - probably because my copy at least was published by Addison Wesley in the USA.
    – dave
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 0:15

1 Answer 1


The OED has (behind a paywall) the following definitions and earliest citations for program/programme:

programme | program, n.


a. A sequence of operations that a machine can be set to perform automatically.

  • 1942 J. W. Mauchly Use High Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculating (Moore School of Electr. Engin., Univ. Pennsylvania) in B. Randell Origins Digital Computers (1973) 330

    Mechanical devices..see to it that the numerical result from an operation in one machine is properly transferred to some other machine, which is selected by a suitable program device;..this program device is capable of arranging a cycle of different transfers and operations in each cycle.

  • 1945 J. P. Eckert et al. Descr. ENIAC (PB 86242) (Moore School of Electr. Engin., Univ. of Pennsylvania) 1

    The intended use of the ENIAC is to compute large families of solutions all based on the same program of operations.

b. Now usually in form program. A series of coded instructions and definitions which when fed into a computer automatically directs its operation in performing a particular task. Also in extended use: something conceived of as encoding and determining a process, esp. genetically.

  • 1947 Math. Tables & Other Aids Computation 2 358

    An important limitation upon programming is that the machine must adhere to a prescribed linear course of operation. It cannot at any point choose between two subsequent programs on the basis of results already obtained.

Sense 9.a. does not explicitly include computer in its definition, and the citation from 1942 simply refers to machine or device (although clearly one that computes). However, the second citation from 1945, in referring to ENIAC, clearly is being used about a computer.

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    I'm surprised that there's not an earlier reference - I guess a different word was used for sequencing an Analytical Engine or a Jacquard loom? Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 13:01
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    @TobySpeight Those are the earliest (in those senses) in the OED... I've not looked elsewhere (as yet).
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 14:37
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    @TobySpeight As far as I can see, neither Lovelace nor Babbage used the term "program"(me/ing). This page includes "This was the first published example of a computer “program,” though neither Ada nor Babbage used this term." (possibly referring to "Note G" dealing with Bernoulli numbers). The book Ada's Algorithm quotes several of her and Babbage's letters, but none contain program (or its immediate variants).
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 16:37
  • Yes, the closest I found of Lovelace was "series of cards" in her translation of the Sketch. Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 16:50
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    @TobySpeight If I recall correctly (from a museum tour 20 years ago) Jacquard looms often used a punch-card/punch-tape like system and, in French, these instructions were sometimes called "programme".
    – Tonny
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 11:41

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