This week's book giveaway is in the OCAJP 8 forum. We're giving away four copies of OCA Java SE 8 Programmer I Study Guide and have Edward Finegan & Robert Liguori on-line! See this thread for details.
FORTRAN is hardly dead, it is still heavily used in the scientific community, mainly because many scientific algorithms were coded in it way back in the 60s and have never been translated to other languages.
But in general, look at the types of tasks that computers are asked to perform. Many of those tasks are business-oriented, whether tracking the flow of money, or the flow of resources (goods, people, time, etc.). Languages that make it easy to shuffle such data around (and yes, shuffling around is what is mostly done with the data) are the ones that gather a wide following and hang on for a long time. That's why COBOL is still going strong. And why Java, PHP and .NET are so popular - they make shuffling data around and reformatting/displaying it easy.
That is not to say that there aren't other uses for programming languages. For example, C and assembly dominate games because they give the best access to the hardware and provide the necessary performance. And they also dominate OSes.
And there is much to be said for languages (such as C and Java) that are general purpose - developers familiar with the language in one domain can fairly easily apply their development skills to other domains. This helps such languages to spread.
And it helps when a language has a large library of pre-written algorithms. Just basic syntax is no longer sufficient to gather developer interest (no-one wants to write their own collection handling, for example).
Randall Twede wrote:some were successful in their day like fortran, algol, pl1. others just never took root, like lisp, logo, and smalltalk. why did they fail?
PL/1 was heavily used for at least a decade. It was used for everything, from financial applications to operating systems. Multics was written in PL/1 and it provided the research for much of what we consider normal practice today (Unix is a pun on Multics). As @Peter said, Fortran is alive and well.
Smalltalk invented the whole WIMP approach to computers that we use on everything today. Even today, to program on OS-X or iOS, you use Objective C, which is essentially a bit of C with a huge collection of Smalltalk style libraries that do all of the GUI/WIMP stuff.
Logo was designed to teach kids how to program. It worked well, it was never intended to be used for professional applications.
Lisp is still a key language. Its popularity was tied to the artificial intelligence fad, which comes and goes every 10 years or so. Lisp one can consider lisp as the parent of all the functional languages, which is one of the hot topics these days.