John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies

I’m of the generation of programmers who first programmed in FORTRAN — I recall reading the FORTRAN manual for the IBM 1130 while in high school — so I noted with interest, and some sense of nostalgia, the obituary in today’s New York Times of John Backus, the leader of the IBM team that developed the FORTRAN language and its first compiler just over fifty years ago.

The Times article quotes two members of the original IBM team, Lois Haibt and Dick Rosenberg. I knew the both while I was at IBM Research. They worked on compilers for many years, notably in the “Tobey” compiler for the IBM “801” project that produced the first RISC computer.

The article also quotes Fran Allen, who joined IBM a few years later and as it happens was my first manager when I joined IBM. Fran and John Backus were both IBM Fellows, IBM’s highest technical honor, and both were also winners of the ACM Turing award — John in the 1970’s and Fran this year.

I recall a conversation with Fran once where she mentioned that few people fully appreciated the groundbreaking efforts of the FORTRAN project, especially in the area of program optmization. It was a true tour de force; for example inthe analysis of loops and in register allocation.

Though half a century old, FORTRAN remains widely used for scientific computation. Indeed, by concidence I had a call about a project’s use of FORTRAN just this morning.

A quote from John Backus at the end of article is noteworthy in that it applies as well to working on open-source projects today as it did on FORTRAN back in the day.

Innovation, Mr. Backus said, was a constant process of trial and error.

“You need the willingness to fail all the time,” he said. “You have to generate many ideas and then have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keepdoing that over and over until you find one that does work.”

I have many fond memories of FORTRAN. For example, once when I heard someone boast that they had written a program and that it had run correctly the very fiirst time, I realized I had never accomplished that signal feat. I then ventured to the computer input room and used a keypunch — you all know what a keypunch is, right? — and entered the following:

PROGRAM S
STOP
END

I ran the program and it worked the first time.

On another occasion, I was told that our project hadn’t used up all our computer budget and that we should do so in order to justify our request for as much time the following year, so I ran the following program

PROGRAM S
10 GOTO 10
END

It never ran to completion in that it always looped but it did just what I wanted.

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