John Backus: Wikis


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John Backus

Born December 3, 1924(1924-12-03)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died March 17, 2007 (aged 82)
Ashland, Oregon
Fields Computer Science
Institutions IBM
Known for Speedcoding
Backus-Naur form
Function-level programming
Notable awards ACM Turing Award
Draper Prize

John Warner Backus (December 3, 1924 – March 17, 2007) was an American computer scientist. He directed the team that invented the first widely used high-level programming language (FORTRAN) and was the inventor of the Backus-Naur form (BNF), the almost universally used notation to define formal language syntax. He also did research in function-level programming and helped to popularize it.

The IEEE awarded Backus the W.W. McDowell Award in 1967 for the development of FORTRAN.[1] He received the National Medal of Science in 1975,[2 ] and the 1977 ACM Turing Award “for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.”[3]


Life and career

Backus was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. He studied at the The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and was apparently not a diligent student.[4] After entering the University of Virginia to study chemistry, he quit and was conscripted into the U.S. Army.[4] He began medical training and, during an internship at a hospital, he was diagnosed with a cranial bone tumor, which was removed successfully; a plate was installed in his head, and he ended medical training after nine months and a subsequent operation to replace the plate with one of his own design.[5]

After moving to New York City he trained initially as a radio technician and became interested in mathematics. He graduated from Columbia University with a Master's degree in mathematics during 1949, and joined IBM in 1950. During his first three years, he worked on the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC); his first major project was to write a program to calculate positions of the Moon. During 1953, John Backus also developed the language Speedcoding, the first higher-order language created for an IBM computer.[6]

Programming was very difficult, and during 1954 Backus assembled a team to define and develop Fortran for the IBM 704 computer. Fortran was the first high level programming language to be put to broad use.

Backus made another, critical contribution to early computer science: during the latter part of the 1950s Backus served on the international committees which developed ALGOL 58 and the very influential ALGOL 60, which quickly became the de facto worldwide standard for publishing algorithms. Backus developed the Backus-Naur Form (BNF), in the UNESCO report on ALGOL 58. This was a formal notation with which one could describe any context-free programming language and was important in the development of compilers. This contribution helped Backus win the Turing Award.

He later worked on a "function-level" programming language known as FP which was described in his Turing Award lecture "Can Programming be Liberated from the von Neumann Style?". Sometimes viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORTRAN, this paper did less to garner interest in the FP language than to spark research into functional programming in general. An FP interpreter was distributed with the 4.2BSD Unix operating system. FP was strongly inspired by Kenneth E. Iverson’s APL, even using a non-standard character set. Backus spent the latter part of his career developing FL (from "Function Level"), a successor to FP. FL was an internal IBM research project, and development of the language essentially stopped when the project was finished (only a few papers documenting it remain), but many of the language's innovative, arguably important ideas have now been implemented in Iverson’s J programming language.

Backus was named an IBM Fellow in 1963,[7] and was awarded a degree honoris causa from the University Henri Poincaré in Nancy (France) in 1989[8] and a Draper Prize in 1993.[9] He retired in 1991 and died at his home in Ashland, Oregon on March 17, 2007.[4]

Awards and honors


  1. ^ a b "W. Wallace McDowell Award". Retrieved 2008-04-15.  
  2. ^ a b "The President's National Medal of Science: John Backus". National Science Foundation. Retrieved 2007-03-21.  
  3. ^ a b "ACM Turing Award Citation: John Backus". Association for Computing Machinery. Retrieved 2007-03-22.  
  4. ^ a b c Lohr, Steve (2007-03-20). "John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-03-21.  
  5. ^ Grady Booch (interviewer) (2006-09-25). "Oral History of John Backus" (pdf). Retrieved 2009-08-17.  
  6. ^ Allen, F.E.. "The History of Language Processor Technology in IBM". IBM Journal of Research Development 25 (5, September 1981).  
  7. ^ a b "John Backus". IBM Archives. Retrieved 2007-03-21.  
  8. ^ a b "John Backus". Retrieved 2008-04-15.  
  9. ^ a b "Recipients of the Charles Stark Draper Prize". Retrieved 2007-03-26.  
  10. ^ "Fellow Awards 1997 Recipient John Backus". Retrieved 2008-04-15.  

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

John Warner Backus (December 3, 1924 – March 17, 2007) was an American computer scientist and winner of the 1977 Turing Award. He led the team that invented FORTRAN, the first widely used high-level programming language, and was the inventor of Backus-Naur form (BNF), the almost universally used notation to define formal language syntax. He also helped to popularize function-level programming.


  • For twenty years programming languages have been steadily progressing toward their present condition of obesity; as a result, the study and invention of programming languages has lost much of its excitement. Instead, it is now the province of those who prefer to work with thick compendia of details rather than wrestle with new ideas. Discussions about programming languages often resemble medieval debates about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin instead of exciting contests between fundamentally differing concepts. Many creative computer scientists have retreated from inventing languages to inventing tools for describing them. Unfortunately, they have been largely content to apply their elegant new tools to studying the warts and moles of existing languages.
  • Von Neumann languages do not have useful properties for reasoning about programs. Axiomatic and denotational semantics are precise tools for describing and understanding conventional programs, but they only talk about them and cannot alter their ungainly properties. Unlike von Neumann languages, the language of ordinary algebra is suitable both for stating its laws and for transforming an equation into its solution, all within the "language."
  • "Much of my work has come from being lazy. I didn't like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 (an early computer), writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs."

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