Pioneers in Tech: John Backus makes programming accessible with FORTRAN
If you ever feel like the chips are down, consider the story of A.M. Turing Award recipient John Backus, who overcame academic difficulties, expulsion due to poor attendance, and a cranial bone tumor to develop the ground-breaking FORTRAN programming language. Let’s dive into this month’s edition of Pioneers in Tech.
Born Dec. 3, 1924, in Philadelphia, Backus struggled with school throughout his academic years. After he was expelled from the University of Virginia less than a year into his chemistry major, Backus was drafted into the U.S. Army, commanding an antiaircraft battery at Fort Stewart, Georgia, during World War II. He scored strongly on military aptitude tests, so following the war he began pursuing a medical career. During this time, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had multiple surgeries to put metal plates in his head. (The final plate placed was one Backus had made himself!)
In 1946, Backus received an honorable medical discharge from the Army, and he moved to New York City without a firm plan, ultimately landing in the mathematics program at Columbia University. Nearing graduation in spring 1949, Backus toured the IBM Computing Center on Madison Avenue and commented that he was interested in working on computers. He was hired as a programmer for the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC).
At the time, programming was—as Backus described it—like “doing hand-to-hand combat with the machine.” It required understanding lines of 0s and 1s (first-generation language) or knowledge of computer architecture. To make it easier, Backus invented Speedcoding, which allowed for more symbolic description of operations on floating point numbers. Concurrent with Backus’ work was IBM’s development of the IBM 704, designed for floating point operations. Building on Speedcoding, Backus proposed a FORmula TRANslating system (get it?) for the IBM 704. Ultimately, every IBM 704 included FORTRAN.
In 1963, Backus became an IBM Fellow, allowing him to freely pursue projects of interest. He retired from IBM in 1991 and passed away in 2007.
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