John Backus (1924 – 2007)

Backus and a small band of IBM colleagues began their quest in 1954 for a system that would enable a computer to produce its own machine language program and do away with arcane binary input of instructions.

In 1967, Backus remembered: “As we began to solve one problem, it split up into others we hadn’t foreseen. In January 1955, we said we would have it in less than a year. Finally, we did it in 1957.”

What Backus and his fellow workers had created was “Formula Translater” aka. FORTRAN, the daddy of programming languages.

Fortran changed how people interacted with computers and paved the way for modern software. Before Fortran, computers had to be “hand-coded” in the raw strings of digits that triggered actions inside the machine. Fortran abstracted that work and let programmers enter commands in a more intuitive way, which the computer would translate into machine code on its own.

“Much of my work has come from being lazy,” Backus told Think, the IBM employee magazine, in 1979. “I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the early “IBM 701″, writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

Fortran showed skeptics that machines could run just as efficiently without hand-coding. A wide range of programming languages and software approaches proliferated, although Fortran also evolved over the years and is still in use.

Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the particular grammar of computer languages which he co-designed with Peter Naur. The system is known as Backus-Naur Form (BNF).

Fun facts:

  • Intel’s Fortran compiler beats every other implementation of every language on the ‘Programming Language Shootout’ benchmark.
  • Early Fortran compilers fi t in 4K words of memory.
  • Backus Turing Award lecture titled “Can programming be liberated from the Von Neumann style” laid the groundwork for functional programming, and anticipated many of the stream programming paradigms that we see today, from GPU programs to Google’s MapReduce system.
  • Lois Haibt, the only female members on Backus’s team noted: “It was the kind of atmosphere where if you couldn’t see what was wrong with your program, you would just turn to the next person. No one was worried about seeming stupid or possessive of his or her code. We were all just learning together.”

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