John Backus Dies at 82

Wikipedia's image of John BackusRoger Magoulas wrote in email, pointting to this NYT article: ” John Backus, who led the project that developed Fortran, died of old-age at 82. Not only was he one of the first software people – before it was called software – he was one of the creators of the hacker ethos of small informal teams who work fast and are willing to learn from mistakes. A rarity for American business in the 50’s.” From the article:

In 1953, frustrated by his experience of “hand-to-hand combat with the machine,” Mr. Backus was eager to somehow simplify programming. He wrote a brief note to his superior, asking to be allowed to head a research project with that goal. “I figured there had to be a better way,” he said.

Mr. Backus got approval and began hiring, one by one, until the team reached 10. It was an eclectic bunch that included a crystallographer, a cryptographer, a chess wizard, an employee on loan from United Aircraft, a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a young woman who joined the project straight out of Vassar College.

“They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women,” Lois Haibt, the Vassar graduate, recalled in an interview in 2000.

Mr. Backus, colleagues said, managed the research team with a light hand. The hours were long but informal. Snowball fights relieved lengthy days of work in winter. I.B.M. had a system of rigid yearly performance reviews, which Mr. Backus deemed ill-suited for his programmers, so he ignored it. “We were the hackers of those days,” Richard Goldberg, a member of the Fortran team, recalled in an interview in 2000.

Backus was also the developer, with Peter Naur, of the Backus-Naur Form or BNF, the metaprogramming notation that is used to formally specify programming languages, networking protocols, and file formats. (Aside: when my kids were little, we got some sheep from our neighbor. One of them loved his food, almost got drunk on it, so we decided to name him Bacchus. I realized that if we called the second sheep Noah, we could call our place the Bacchus-Noah Farm. A geek in-joke that was lost on my kids and their friends, but gave me endless private pleasure!)

I hadn’t realized till I read the epitaph that Backus was also one of the earliest proponents of functional programming, a topic that’s been coming round on the guitar lately. [Radar coverage]