John Backus

It’s not often that a computer scientist makes the obituary column of national newspapers. So it’s interesting that the death of John Backus, the inventor of the Fortran programming language, made it into the Guardian and New York Times recently.

Anyone who is old enough to remember struggling through scientific programming classes using Fortran 77, will perhaps recall cursing the inventor of a language more orientated to the days of the punch card. However, Backus should be remembered for introducing the basic concept that machines could be programmed using English-like notation rather than an impenetrable stream of numeric codes (as was the case at the time in the early 1950s). The first version of the Formula translation (Fortran) language appeared in 1957 and the British Computer Society recently celebrated its jubilee. It’s still going strong, indeed work is under way on Fortran 2008.

Backus’s work led onto a plethora of other high-level languages such as Pascal and Java. This brings to mind the infamous real programmers don’t use Pascal letter which first appeared in Datamation magazine in 1983. This was a tongue in cheek computer science version of the ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ phenomenon. In a time when there was a concern amongst some that computer languages were becoming a bit, well, easy, this was a hacker’s attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. It included lines like: ‘Real Programmers aren’t afraid to use GOTOs’ and ‘Real Programmers don’t need comments– the code is obvious’.

The letter also contains the immortal line:
‘Real programmers arrive at work [just] in time for lunch’.

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