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The Passing of Another Great

Because computer science is such a young field, it is easy to forget that it has a history. And a fundamental individual close to the beginning of that history passed away last week. John Backus, whose development of the Fortran programming language in the 1950s changed how people interacted with computers and paved the way for modern software, died Saturday in Ashland, Oregon. Fortran was the first high-level computer language; prior to its development, you wrote code in machine language or assembly. The development of Fortran earned Backus the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, one of the industry's highest accolades. The citation praised Backus' "profound, influential, and lasting contributions."

Backus also won a National Medal of Science in 1975 and got the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the top honor from the National Academy of Engineering. Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the particular grammar of computer languages. The system is known as Backus-Naur Form, or BNF, for those of us with training in formal languages.

As a sophomore at a liberal arts college in the late 1970s, my choices in learning computers were very limited – Basic and Fortran. Basic was interactive, while Fortran was batch, done on punch cards. It was not readily apparent to me at the time that programming languages had different design tradeoffs; it was only later, working with pointer-oriented languages, that I learned that languages had deliberate and specific strengths and weaknesses that made them more appropriate in given domains.

Fortran, of course, was best known as a number-crunching language. Its early binding and fixed-sized and rigid data structures meant that the compiler could build the resulting executable to take advantage of the processor it ran on, making its programs extremely fast. It was essential for scientific and engineering applications.

C, a pointer-oriented language, could never be as fast, but work on C compilers eventually made it good enough for all but the most demanding number-crunching applications. Microsoft at one point in time sold Microsoft Fortran, but it disappeared as Visual Studio became ascendant.

Even if Fortran is no longer a common language for mainstream computing, to me it epitomized the concept of TANSTAFFL, used in Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch defines the tradeoffs anyone working in computing makes on a daily basis.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 03/20/2007 at 1:15 PM


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