From FORTRAN To Your Desktop: An Homage to the Man Who Started it All

When I read this morning the obituary of John Backus, one of the key creators of FORTRAN, I was surprised to learn that this venerable language was born in the middle of the Eisenhower administration, which makes it 50 years old and shows us all how much our industry is greying. It's also a sobering thought to see these early pioneers heading off to computing's Elysian Fields, particularly at a time when so much more hard work is left to be done.

When I read this morning the obituary of John Backus, one of the key creators of FORTRAN, I was surprised to learn that this venerable language was born in the middle of the Eisenhower administration, which makes it 50 years old and shows us all how much our industry is greying. It's also a sobering thought to see these early pioneers heading off to computing's Elysian Fields, particularly at a time when so much more hard work is left to be done. 

When I was a kid out of college, learning to program because that's where the jobs were, FORTRAN was the language. In part for the tight correlations between the language and the largely technical tasks that it was built to solve, and in part because by then (the early 1980s) FORTRAN had become "structured", and the new disciplines that structured programming lent to the world of computer science were eagerly sought by the generation of geeks that I had joined up with. 

Structured programming was a revolution because it was the birthplace of concepts, such as reusability and object-orientation, that are still with us today. Of course, no one called FORTRAN an object-oriented language, that was left up to another generation of pioneers, the originators of C and C++. Nor was FORTRAN as reusable as we would have liked -- line editors and other clumsy programmer's toolkits forced us to keep our favorite reusable sub-routines in jerry-rigged libraries hidden in the arcane reaches of the mainframe file systems we were all prisoners of. But FORTRAN was the place where many of these concepts first saw the light of day, and when it came time for the FORTRAN gang to move on to its successors -- Pascal, C, C++, and eventually Java, among others -- what we learned at the feet of masters like John Backus formed the basis for how the world of computing still turns today. 

What's important to remember is that Backus' quest lives on. His goal was to free computer users from what the New York Times' John Lohr calls the "programming priesthood." That's still a noble quest today. As we strive towards the usual buzzterms of "IT/business alignment" and an enhanced "user experience", it's worth noting that the journey started 50 years ago in the brain of one man. It's a journey that promises to last another 50 years, at least. 

When it comes to John Backus, Sir Isaac Newton's famous homage to the collective endeavors of humanity -- "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" --  says it all. FORTRAN is one of those crucibles of human endeavor, and Backus was the giant who made it happen. 

 

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