Backus, John W.

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Backus, John W.

Born December 3, 1924, in Philadelphia, PA; died March 17, 2007, in Ashland, OR. Computer programmer. As a programmer in the 1950s, John Backus felt there must be an easier way to complete his daily work duties. Looking for a way to avoid the tedious task of hand coding individual machines, which was how computer programming was done at the time, he formed a team to create Fortran. This was the first computer language that combined algebra and English, and it allowed programmers to do in 47 statements what had previously taken 1,000 instructions. It was essentially the first piece of software, as it could be used on multiple machines rather than each machine having to be coded by hand.

The development of Fortran, which stood for Formula Translator, was groundbreaking, a “turning point” according to computer historian J. A. N. Lee, commenting in the New York Times. Though it was developed in 1957, versions of Fortran are still in use, and it has become the basis for a wide variety of programming languages and software created after its release. Dag Spicer, the senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, told Michelle Quinn of the Los Angeles Times, “Fortran is really the defacto language for scientific computing. It had to happen for computers to propagate.”

Born in 1924, Backus grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. His father, who had been a chemist, worked as a stockbroker. High school was a trial for Backus, and though he did not excel as a student, he went on to study chemistry at the University of Virginia. His academics there also faltered, and he was failing out of his classes when he was drafted into the Army in 1943.

Though Backus struggled as a student, he tested well, and the Army sponsored him in programs at three universities, from medicine to engineering. His medical studies stalled when a tumor was found on his skull, and though he received successful treatment, his return to medical school was lackluster. Intrigued by mathematics and radio technology, he enrolled at Columbia University, from which he received his Master’s degree in 1949.

It was almost by chance that he received his first position with IBM. While taking a tour of the company’s headquarters in New York, Backus acknowledged that he was seeking a job and was near completing his graduate degree in math. This offhand comment led to an informal interview with Rex Seeber, the inventor of the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC), who would become Backus’ first employer. His first job involved calculating lunar positions on the SSEC for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Apollo program.

In 1952, Backus moved on to work on the IBM 701 computer, a bulky machine that was state of the art for its time. Instead of finding lunar positions, Backus’s work now involved calculating missile trajectories. Frustrated by the amount of time he spent coding each task, Backus developed a system called speedcoding, a process that made programming the 701 much faster. When he was asked to transfer to the new 704 in 1954, Backus asked if he could instead develop a programming team to make the task even easier. “Much of my work has come from being lazy,” Backus was quoted as having said in the Los Angeles Times. “So when I was writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

Backus’ team was just as unconventional as his project. The group included a chess wizard, an expert at the game of bridge, a crystallographer, a cryptographer, a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a young woman who had just graduated from Vassar College, and an employee borrowed from United Aircraft. Backus led his team through long hours broken up by snowball fights and other types of group camaraderie. In 1957, the team released Fortran, a program that opened doors to future computer technicians. “95 percent of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran,” Ken Thompson, developer of the Unix operating system, was quoted as having said in the Chicago Tribune. For his work, Backus received the W. W. McDowell Award in 1967. In 1975, Backus was awarded the National Medal of Science, and in 1977, he received the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. His contributions to the field were also honored in 1993 with the highest award from the National Academy of Engineering, the Charles Stark Draper Prize.

After Fortran, Backus continued to work at IBM, finding ways to make using computers easier. He worked with Danish programmer Peter Naur to develop mathematical notation to describe the structure of programming languages, released as the Backus-Naur form. In 1963, he became one of the first IBM fellows and moved to California to work in the research laboratories there. He continued to work with ideas in functional programming, which would allow users to describe the problem they wanted solved, rather than giving the computer step-by-step instructions on how to solve it. He stayed with IBM until his retirement in 1991.

After his wife died in 2004, Backus moved to Ashland, Oregon, to live near his daughters. He died in his home from age-related causes on March 17, 2007.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2007, pp. 2-12; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/03/20/obit.backus.asp/index.html (March 20, 2007); Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2007, p. B10; New York Times, March 20, 2007, p. C12; Times (London), April 3, 2007, p. 54; Washington Post, March 21, 2007, p. B7.

—Alana Joli Abbott

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