John W. Backus, who assembled and led
the I.B.M. team that created Fortran, the first widely used programming
language, which helped open the door to modern computing, died on
Saturday at his home in Ashland, Ore. He was 82.
His daughter Karen Backus announced the death, saying the family did not know the cause, other than age.
released in 1957, was “the turning point” in computer software, much as
the microprocessor was a giant step forward in hardware, according to
J. A. N. Lee, a leading computer historian.
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
Mr. Backus and his youthful team, then all in their 20s
and 30s, devised a programming language that resembled a combination of
English shorthand and algebra. Fortran, short for Formula Translator,
was very similar to the algebraic formulas that scientists and
engineers used in their daily work. With some training, they were no
longer dependent on a programming priesthood to translate their science
and engineering problems into a language a computer would understand.
an interview several years ago, Ken Thompson, who developed the Unix
operating system at Bell Labs in 1969, observed that “95 percent of the
people who programmed in the early years would never have done it
He added: “It was a massive step.”
was also extremely efficient, running as fast as programs painstakingly
hand-coded by the programming elite, who worked in arcane machine
languages. This was a feat considered impossible before Fortran. It was
achieved by the masterful design of the Fortran compiler, a program
that captures the human intent of a program and recasts it in a way
that a computer can process.
In the Fortran project, Mr. Backus
tackled two fundamental problems in computing — how to make programming
easier for humans, and how to structure the underlying code to make
that possible. Mr. Backus continued to work on those challenges for
much of his career, and he encouraged others as well.
contribution was immense, and it influenced the work of many, including
me,” Frances Allen, a retired research fellow at I.B.M., said yesterday.
Backus was a bit of a maverick even as a teenager. He grew up in an
affluent family in Wilmington, Del., the son of a stockbroker. He had a
complicated, difficult relationship with his family, and he was a
In a series of interviews in 2000 and 2001 in
San Francisco, where he lived at the time, Mr. Backus recalled that his
family had sent him to an exclusive private high school, the Hill
School in Pennsylvania.
“The delight of that place was all the rules you could break,” he recalled.
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
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.
took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills —
bridge players, chess players, even women,” Lois Haibt, the Vassar
graduate, recalled in an interview in 2000.
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, Mr. Backus developed, with Peter Naur, a Danish computer
scientist, a notation for describing the structure of programming
languages, much like grammar for natural languages. It became known as
Later, Mr. Backus worked for years with a group
at I.B.M. in an area called functional programming. The notion, Mr.
Backus said, was to develop a system of programming that would focus
more on describing the problem a person wanted the computer to solve
and less on giving the computer step-by-step instructions.
field owes a lot to John Backus and his early efforts to promote it,”
said Alex Aiken, a former researcher at I.B.M. who is now a professor
at Stanford University.
addition to his daughter Karen, of New York, Mr. Backus is survived by
another daughter, Paula Backus, of Ashland, Ore.; and a brother, Cecil
Backus, of Easton, Md.
His second wife, Barbara Stannard, died in 2004. His first marriage, to Marjorie Jamison, ended in divorce.
was Mr. Backus who set the tone for the Fortran team. Yet if the style
was informal, the work was intense, a four-year venture with no
guarantee of success and many small setbacks along the way.
Innovation, Mr. Backus said, was a constant process of trial and error.
“You need the willingness to fail all the time,” he said. “You have to
generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to
discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over
until you find one that does work.”