Fortran Creator Passed Away

The passing away of John Backus — leader of the team that invented the Fortran programming language — has been making the rounds yesterday and today. I didn’t recognize the name immediately, but it’s been interesting reading up on the history of Fortran and how it was created:

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.

Fortran was the second language I learned (after Basic of course). If I recall correctly, we actually did a bit of punch card programming in high school. In college, the first programming class for engineering students used Fortran (this was in 1984). A year or two later, the school switched to Pascal for that course. (I wonder what they’re using now?)

In my first job after graduating, I worked for a couple years on a signal processing system written in…Fortran! It was pretty cool actually, and fast (for the time, I guess).

The Wikipedia entry for Fortran gives a good overview of the history of the language and its use today. It sounds like a lot of high-end calculations and problem solving are still using it today, 50 years after it was created.

The Computer History Museum Software Preservation Group has a lot of documentation and other artifacts on their History of Fortran page. For example, you can read a PDF that includes the source code (written in IBM 704 assembler) for the first Fortran compiler. I recommend watching the 25th anniversary video which interviewed John and most of the original team members.