Death of Fortran


I was flipping through the NY Times RSS feeds today and noticed an article that the creator of Fortran had died.  John Backus led the team that designed the language back in 1957.

Fortran made computing what it is today, where programming is relatively accessible (i.e., if you put in the time you can learn a language and how to program).  Prior to the invention of Fortran there were no compilers that converted your program to machine code-you had to code in the hexadecimal notation of assembly language.

What made the article so fascinating was their description of how he was hired and how back then computing was the Wild West (a la Internet today):

After flunking out of the University of Virginia, Mr. Backus was drafted in 1943. But his scores on Army aptitude tests were so high that he was dispatched on government-financed programs to three universities, with his studies ranging from engineering to medicine.

After the war, Mr. Backus found his footing as a student at Columbia University and pursued an interest in mathematics, receiving his master’s degree in 1950. Shortly before he graduated, Mr. Backus wandered by the I.B.M. headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York, where one of its room-size electronic calculators was on display.

When a tour guide inquired, Mr. Backus mentioned that he was a graduate student in math; he was whisked upstairs and asked a series of questions Mr. Backus described as math “brain teasers.” It was an informal oral exam, with no recorded score.

He was hired on the spot. As what? “As a programmer,” Mr. Backus replied, shrugging. “That was the way it was done in those days.”

Back then, there was no field of computer science, no courses or schools. The first written reference to “software” as a computer term, as something distinct from hardware, did not come until 1958.

In 1953, frustrated by his experience of “hand-to-hand combat with the machine,” Mr. Backus was eager to somehow simplify programming. He wrote a brief note to his superior, asking to be allowed to head a research project with that goal. “I figured there had to be a better way,” he said.

Mr. Backus got approval and began hiring, one by one, until the team reached 10. It was an eclectic bunch that included a crystallographer, a cryptographer, a chess wizard, an employee on loan from United Aircraft, a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a young woman who joined the project straight out of Vassar College.

Monday, March 19, 2007

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