Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Computer pioneer, developer of Fortran, dies in Oregon at 82
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 Saturday in Ashland, Ore., according to IBM Corp., where he spent his career.

Before 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" programming 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.

The breakthrough earned Backus the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, one of the industry's highest accolades. The citation praised Backus' "profound, influential, and lasting contributions."

. . .

"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."

Sometimes I don't know whether to love him or hate him for this. But yes, back in my undergrad days when I was a budding comp sci major, I did write several programs in both machine and assembler. COme to think of it, I spent an entire semester writing assembler programs. . .gee, it must be true that you block out bad memories. Anyway, comp sci programs by that time didn't teach Fortran, that was left to the engineering schools. We were all into structured languages, and Pascal was the big teaching language at the time. But a lot of programs written by archaeologists were initially done in Fortran, so I eventually became pretty familiar with it. In fact, I ended up translating both an occurrence seriation and a surveying data reduction program from Fortran to Pascal and thence eventually to Visual Basic for Access. I was always taught that "GoTo" was just a nitch up from Satan on the Ultimate Evil scale.

And yeah, writing assembler s.u.c.k.s. Pretty darn efficient though. But, as you can tell, it kinda soured me on the whole computer science route. . . .