TITLE: END DO AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 21, 2007 4:35 PM DESC: ----- BODY: John Backus What prompted me to finally write about Frances Allen winning the Turing Award was a bit of sad news. One of the pioneers of computing, John Backus, has died. Like Allen, Backus also worked in the area of programming languages. He is most famous as the creator of Fortran, as reported in the Times piece:
Fortran changed the terms of communication between humans and computers, moving up a level to a language that was more comprehensible by humans. So Fortran, in computing vernacular, is considered the first successful higher-level language."
I most often think of Backus's contribution in terms of the compiler for Fortran. His motivation to write the compiler and design the language was that shared by many computer scientists through history: laziness. Here is my favorite quote from the CNN piece:
"Much of my work has come from being lazy," Backus told Think, the IBM employee magazine, in 1979. "I didn't like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 (an early computer), writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs."
Work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs... This is the beginning of computer science as we know it! Backus's work laid the foundation for Fran Allen's work; in fact, her last big project was called PTRAN, an homage to Fortran that stands for Parallel TRANslation. One of my favorite Backus papers is his Turing Award essay, Can Programming Be Liberated from the von Neumann Style? (subtitled: A Functional Style and its Algebra of Programs). After all his years working on language for programmers and translators for machines, he had reached a conclusion that the mainstream computing world is still catching up to, that a functional programming style may serve us best. Every computer scientist should read it. This isn't the first time I've written of the passing of a Turing Award winner. A couple of years ago, I commented on Kenneth Iverson, also closely associated with his own programming language, APL. Ironically, APL offers a most extreme form of liberation from the von Neumann machine. Thinking of Iverson and Backus together at this time seems especially fitting. The Fortran programmers among us know what the title means. RIP. -----