Fortran Creator, John Backus, Dies at 82
March 26, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
John Backus, the IBM systems programmer who led the team that created the Fortran programming language back in the 1950s, has died at the age of 82.
Fortran, which is short for the IBM Mathematical Formula Translating System, was created in 1956 for the IBM 704 computer, the first electronic computer in the world with floating point math capabilities; this machine was launched in 1954 for scientific and technical applications, and Backus’ Fortran proposal was part and parcel of the system, although it follwed it to market several years later.
Fortran was one of the first high-level programming languages–and arguably one of the most important ones–which used a combination of English and mathematical expressions–in this case, to render mathematical calculations and crunch data through them. According to Backus, Fortran was a product of his own laziness as well as his brilliance–he wanted to make it easier to program complex mathematical concepts because programming was too tedious.
The original Fortran had an optimizer built into its compiler, which allowed Fortran to be crunched down to more efficient code and therefore not waste precious cycles on expensive computing equipment. This let programmers think at a much higher level than assembly language, and the advance in computer processing power driven by Moore’s Law allowed more and more complex systems to be modeled. Because of the popularity of Fortran on IBM systems, other computer makers had to put their own Fortran compilers into the field, and eventually, with Fortran 66 in 1996, the industry picked a standard for the language. Since that time, the standard has evolved a half dozen times as new programming techniques became available.
As a result of that evolution, much of the advanced codes that run on supercomputers today–those that model our weather, nuclear explosions, chemical interactions, and air flow over a wing–are still running on Fortran, which is over 50 years old and which has been declared a dead language many times over.
As much as Sun Microsystems is hoping that its newly open sourced Fortress programming language will replace Fortran for parallel applications, the odds don’t favor it. Fortran has a way of adapting and surviving.