John Backus, FORTRAN and the Computer Industry

This past weekend the computer industry lost one of its founding giants. John Backus, the creator of FORTRAN and the co-creator of the BNF syntax used for creating most computer language parsers died over the weekend at the age of 82.

Like most of my generation of geeks, I started programming in FORTRAN on punch cards. While it stopped being my favorite programming language, I’ve never quite lost a love of FORTRAN and its amazing power at numerical work at a time when the world’s largest computers had less memory than my watch. It’s ironic that more wasn’t made of Backus’ death at Microsoft this week. After all, not only did Microsoft get its start as a programming language vendor (writing a version of BASIC in 1975) but Microsoft’s second product was a FORTRAN compiler in the days when personal computers had toggle switches, blinking lights and a 300 baud DECWriter II terminal was living well. And, of course, long before Apple existed or IBM thought mere users should have access to computers.

Yes, in a lot of ways, Microsoft really is a company that started as a child of FORTRAN and also as a child of Backus.

So, from all billion or so of us in the modern computer world, a posthumous thank you to John Backus for kick-starting our world.


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