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John W. Backus Dies at 82; Developed FORTRAN 271

A number of readers let us know of the passing of John W. Backus, who assembled a team to develop FORTRAN at IBM in the 1950s. It was the first widely used high-level language. Backus later worked on a "function-level" programming language, FP, which was described in his Turing Award lecture "Can Programming be Liberated from the von Neumann Style?" and is viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORTRAN. He received the 1977 ACM Turing Award "for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages."
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John W. Backus Dies at 82; Developed FORTRAN

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  • Also known for... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @04:55AM (#18411689)
    ... Backus-Naur Form (BNF) grammars, the sine qua non of compiler design for the most-popular languages out there.

    Truly an American icon. Even if you never ran LEXX or YACC in your life, Backus's impact on contemporary culture cannot be denied.
  • by quakeaddict ( 94195 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @05:27AM (#18411819)
    If it were not for the work of that generation, and the creativity they displayed, our world would be a far different place.

    Poke fun at Fortran all you want, but dammit I use code today to drive a statistical website that was written in the 60's, and it still runs great. []
  • Re:Also known for... (Score:5, Informative)

    by belmolis ( 702863 ) <billposer.alum@mit@edu> on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @05:47AM (#18411879) Homepage

    BNF is a useful notation, but it is just a notation for context-free grammars, which had already been developed and whose properties were already understood. Chomsky described the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages, including context-free languages (type 2), in 1956, three years before Backus introduced a primitive version of BNF in describing what became Algol 58. The basic ideas came from mathematical logic and linguistics. Backus' role was to introduce these ideas to the specification of computer languages, ironically in part in reaction to the problem of specifying Fortran, which is not context-free.

  • rest in peace (Score:5, Informative)

    by dario_moreno ( 263767 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @06:15AM (#18411991) Journal
    Maybe it's because I was breastfed with BASIC from a very young age, but when I was forced to learn FORTRAN to work on legacy code I discovered after some initial, computer science taught disgust, that it was really the best way to express myself in code, better than with anything else, and I owe my present university position to FORTRAN because it made me so productive. I guess it was because the language was conceived by engineer, scientists oriented types, and not by formal logic adepts or grammar nazis. I still teach FORTRAN to this day, using F90/F95 in all its power, and MATLAB-like exposed students tend to enjoy it because they can develop simple and efficient numerical codes much faster than with anything else; some of them found positions thanks to it. The trick is to use FORTRAN for what it's for (numerical arrays, heavy linear algebra, easily parallelizable scientific computing) and not strings or files manipulation, linked lists (LISP) , graphics or system : for that there is C(++), and tons of libraries. If the code grows larger than 10 000 lines, very strong discipline is necessary, and that's where true OO can be pertinent. In scientific code FORTRAN tends to be 20% faster than the best possible C++ implementation because the grammar is so simple that compilers tend to understand better the code and can vectorize or optimize it much farther than C ; and there is much less overhead than with C++ because the objects are simpler to manipulate. Major code used in the industry (Star-CD, Gaussian for instance) is still written in FORTRAN for those (and legacy) reasons.
  • ``apology'' (Score:2, Informative)

    by majiCk ( 264238 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @06:21AM (#18412019)

    I understand the context in which the word "apology" is being used (as in "justification"), ...

    Actually, I'm pretty sure they do mean ``apology'' as in ``sorry, world''. Backus's work on FP was all about getting past the ``word-at-a-time'' assignment-based paradigm popularized by FORTRAN (the ``von Neumann bottleneck''), and moving on to more expressive algebraic programming techniques, today referred to as functional programming. Check out his Turing award lecture [] -- it's a great read!

  • by Don_dumb ( 927108 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @08:50AM (#18412783)
    Speaking of bad weather, I think these guys - [] who are the authority on weather prediction in the UK. Use Fortran for weather forecasting and climate prediction /fortran90/index.html [] and they don't seem to be tiring of it.

    Personally I don't see why this man seems to be getting such a bad send off here. After all the man invented a programming language that at a time when their were few others around, a language that has survived in critical usage until today. There may be many geeks on this site, but I doubt many of those who seem to be dancing on his grave could have done something so difficult, anywhere near as well as he did.

    Just because an old language is more difficult to use than some more modern ones, does not mean that old language is a bad thing to have existed. And it doesn't mean that it wasn't a great achievement.
  • by Rob the Bold ( 788862 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @09:29AM (#18413179)

    " drive a statistical website that was written in the 60's"

    talking about anachronisms ...

    Funny, yes, but misinterpretation is not insight.

    I use code today to drive a statistical website that was written in the 60's

    The code was developed in the 60's. It (the code) is used today to drive a statistical website.

  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @09:47AM (#18413361) Homepage Journal

    (yes, yes, I know, he's no apologising in the usual sense; this is a play on words, or a pun, as it is also known)

    Not quite:

    Source: WordNet (r) 1.7
    n 1: an expression of regret at having caused trouble for someone; "he wrote a letter of apology to the hostess"
    2: a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly [syn: apologia]

    (this is another accepted meaning of a word, or an alternate meaning, as it is also known)

  • by puppetluva ( 46903 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @09:49AM (#18413397)
    In case you were wondering, the Chomsky of the "hierarchy of formal languages" is the same Noam Chomsky that you probably know of in a political context.

    Check out the Wikipedia page on him. . . agree with his politics or not, he's had an interesting career in linguistics. . .
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @12:59PM (#18416803)
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2007 @01:26PM (#18417311)
    LISP is about to enter its sixth decade too, is still used by advocates, and had its heyday in computer culture. I believe its inventor John McCarthy is still around. MIT used to use LISP as its required CS training language from the 1960s until 2006.

    I call "centennial languages" languages that were invented near the beginning of the computer age as, still used a fair amount, and probably will be around until their 100th birthdays. Some languages like ALGOL, OL/I, and even PASCAL have faded.

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton