RIP, John Backus, father of FORTRAN

Reply Wed 21 Mar, 2007 02:17 pm
New York Times article

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.
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