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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

World Loses First Computer Geek

John W. Backus, developer of FORTRAN, died Saturday at the age of 82. Backus led the IBM development team that created the first widely utilized, high level, optimizing compiler for the FORTRAN programming language in 1957. This compiler was developed primarily for scientific and engineering applications and during its 50 years of continual use has been implemented on multiple platforms. The resultant machine code has been used for calculating results for mathematically intensive tasks such as sending rockets into space, climate modeling, computational physics and computational chemistry. It embraces complex number data types, and other algebraic functions, making it uniquely suitable for engineering and scientific use. Continued popularity in these circles is probably due to its superior floating point performance as compared to other popular modern languages such as BASIC and C/C++, although high-precision math libraries are now available for these languages as well.

FORTRAN is an acronym for Formula Translating System. Previous to the widespread acceptance of FORTRAN, programming involved the labor intensive step by step coding of assembly language, which is the mnemonic representation of the CPUs core machine instruction set. This code was originally entered via toggle switches and debugging was via panel lamps indicating fault conditions. FORTRAN allowed more natural and efficient code development than assembler and thus allowed scientists to create their own code models rather than having to rely on dedicated programmers. High-level languages coupled with mass-production and the improved data entry and storage methods which were eventually devised resulted in the personal computers we use today.

Due to the language's long term usage, many jokes and anecdotes have arisen; a few of the more humorous are listed below.

  • "Consistently separating words by spaces became a general custom about the tenth century A.D., and lasted until about 1957, when FORTRAN abandoned the practice."
    Sun FORTRAN Reference Manual

  • Computer Science without FORTRAN and COBOL is like birthday cake without ketchup and mustard.

  • "The primary purpose of the DATA statement is to give names to constants; instead of referring to pi as 3.141592653589793 at every appearance, the variable PI can be given that value with a DATA statement and used instead of the longer form of the constant. This also simplifies modifying the program, should the value of pi change."
    Early FORTRAN manual for Xerox Computers

RIP to one of the first and most influential computer geeks.

John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies
New York Times
Fortran Automated Coding System For the IBM 704
Original IBM FORTRAN Manual, by John Backus, et al., Oct. 1956


Blogger Vox Populi said...

I had a boyfriend who worked with Fortran. He also had a nifty round bar b q grill but never used it.
Yes, the two things have nothing to do with each other.

I always feel the loss for us when an amazing life/mind takes their act to the next place. Sad.

Tue Mar 27, 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Dr. Know said...

I program in a variety of languages, but my fav is still assembly for some reason.

As for the BBQ grill, you're really hung up on that story, eh? Don't feel bad, it has by far been the most popular entry so far and I have gotten over 50 hits in two days from people searching for information on that story.

Apparently, cooking your significant other on the grill is a popular fantasy. (?!)

Tue Mar 27, 12:42:00 PM  

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