Mar 20

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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]

tags: movers and shakers  | comments: 7   | Sphere It

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Comments: 7

  aram [03.20.07 10:46 AM]

As a civil engineer, we learned fortran and pascal in college. The Fortran language is still used in a lot of mini programs in a lot of civil engineering calculations.

As my career switched to computer science, and subsequent work on radars, a lot of legacy code still in use is in fortran. Its fast and it works although no longer used for new development.

Clearly more modern computer science owes a lot to this man.

  Scott Rose [03.20.07 12:51 PM]

The Times doesn't seem to agree, but it does seem worth mentioning that this work won him the Turing Award in 1977. See

  maetl [03.21.07 08:10 AM]

1977 Turing Award Lecture: Can programming be liberated from the von Neumann style?. Maybe it's just that title, brilliant, bordering on vitriolic, but this seems nothing less than the emergence of a new programming paradigm... John Backus is one of those people whose significant historical contribution may not have been entirely recognized at first (compared to, say, Dijkstra and Knuth) - one day the hacker masses will wake up and realize the shoulders they're standing on.

  Dan [03.21.07 10:04 AM]

That's very cool that you got sheep for your kids. They're a very underrated animal to those that like them. Maybe you'd appreciate this one with its distinctive coat and dramatic horns.

  Kevin Farnham [03.21.07 09:51 PM]

Before today I never heard of John Backus. Now I recognize him as being an artist, a great philosopher, the creator of a new method by which humans could interpret and understand and codify the World. What he accomplished is incredible given the World that was his "given," working for the world's greatest typewriter manufacturer at the time...

  GaryS [03.22.07 07:31 AM]

Most interesting is the fact the Fortran is alive and well with regular standards updates at 1990, 1995, 2003, and 2008 in works. There were about 10 PC and MAC Fortran companies just a few years ago until Intel woke up and squashed some of them. F2k3 is fully object oriented taking the best of Ada, Modula, and C++. Of course, for backwards compatibility, there is some baggage, but you don't have to use the obsolescent features it if you don't want.

  Ted D. [03.22.07 06:54 PM]

God bless you, Mr. Howell. You and the Professor were always my favorites.

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