/ 21 March 2007

Inventor of Fortran dies in Oregon

John Backus, whose development of the Fortran programming language in the 1950s changed how people interacted with computers and paved the way for modern software, has died. He was 82.

Backus died on March 17 in Ashland, Oregon, according to IBM, where he spent his career.

Prior to Fortran, computers had to be meticulously ”hand-coded” — programmed in the raw strings of digits that triggered actions inside the machine. Fortran was a ”high-level” language because it abstracted that work — it let programmers enter commands in a more intuitive system, which the computer would translate into machine code on its own.

”It was just a quantum leap. It changed the game in a way that has only happened two or three times in the computer industry,” said Jim Horning, a long-time programmer who co-chairs the Association for Computing Machinery’s award committee.

That organisation gave Backus its 1977 Turing Award, one of the industry’s highest accolades. Backus also won a National Medal of Science in 1975 and got the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the top honour from the National Academy of Engineering.

”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 IBM 701 [an early computer], writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

John Warner Backus was born in 1924 and grew up in born in Wilmington, Delaware. His father was a chemist who became a stockbroker. Backus had what he would later describe as a ”chequered educational career” in prep school and the University of Virginia, which he left after six months.

After being drafted into the army, Backus studied medicine but dropped it when he found radio engineering more compelling.

Backus finally found his calling in math, and he pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. Shortly before graduating, Backus toured the IBM offices in midtown Manhattan and came across the company’s selective sequence electronic calculator, an early computer stuffed with 13 000 vacuum tubes.

He met one of the machine’s inventors, Rex Seeber — who ”gave me a little homemade test and hired me on the spot”, Backus recalled in 1979.

Backus’s early work at IBM included computing lunar positions on the balky, bulky computers that were state of the art in the 1950s. But he tired of hand-coding the hardware, and in 1954 he got his bosses to let him assemble a team that could design an easier system.

The result, Fortran, short for ”Formula Translation”, reduced the number of programming statements necessary to operate a machine by a factor of 20.

Even more importantly, ”it took about as long to write one line of Fortran as one line of assembly code”, Horning said. Previous attempts at high-level language had failed on that count, so Fortran showed sceptics that machines could run just as efficiently without hand-coding.

From there, a wide range of programming languages and software approaches proliferated, although Fortran also evolved over the years and remains in use.

Known as a maverick who preferred jeans to IBM’s buttoned-up, conservative style, Backus stayed with the company until his retirement in 1991. Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the particular grammar of computer languages. The system came to be known as Backus-Naur Form. — Sapa-AP