John Backus, known as the father of the Fortran computer programming language that made computers more accessible, died Saturday in Ashland, Ore., according to the International Business Machines Corp., his longtime employer. He was 82.
In the 1950s, Backus headed a small team at IBM trying to find a way to make computers more useful for scientists and mathematicians.
Prior to developing Fortran, computers essentially came with no software. To use the machines, researchers had to input code instructions by hand.
Fortran, which stood for Formula Translator or Formula Translation, was finished in 1957.
What had taken 1,000 machine instructions previously could be done in 47 statements, Backus said in a 1979 interview in Think, IBM’s employee newsletter.
“Fortran is really the de facto language for scientific computing,” said Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., which made Backus a fellow in 1997. “It had to happen for computers to propagate.”
More than 50 years after its debut, updated versions of Fortran are still used today, Spicer said.
The breakthrough earned Backus a National Medal of Science in 1975 and the 1977 Turing Award from the Assn. for Computing Machinery. Backus was praised for his “profound, influential and lasting contributions.” He also received the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the top honor from the National Academy of Engineering.
“Much of my work has come from being lazy,” Backus said in the Think interview. “So when I was writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”
Born in Philadelphia, Backus grew up in Wilmington, Del. He attended the University of Virginia, Columbia University and briefly attended medical school. He eventually found his calling in math and pursued a master’s degree at Columbia.
In the spring of 1949, Backus visited IBM’s offices in Manhattan. While on a tour, he mentioned that he was looking for a job and was given an interview. IBM hired him in 1950, after giving him a quick test.
Weary of coding hardware by hand, Backus pitched an idea to his bosses to create a team to come up with a way to simplify lines of instructions with “loops,” or instructions that are automatically created by simple commands. The team started work in 1954.
Sometimes, the Fortran team worked in the evenings on the computers that IBM had on display in its Manhattan lobby, said Richard Goldberg, a retired IBM employee.
“He was adroit at making things, like alarms to go off in his home if his car was being broken into,” said Goldberg, who was on the Fortran team and who remained friends with Backus. “We were the hackers then.”
Frances Allen, this year’s Turing Award winner and a retired IBM research fellow, met Backus at IBM shortly after Fortran was created. She recalled the effect of Backus’ vision to create computer languages so that scientists could use computers easily and quickly without learning the complexities of the machines they were using.
“I made that the theme of my own work for the next 45 years,” Allen said.
Backus was interested in pushing boundaries, Allen said. He wore denim all the time, even at some formal functions, she remembered. “He was a bit of a maverick,” she said.
In 1991, Backus retired as an IBM fellow in San Jose.
He is survived by two daughters and a brother.