Fortran founder John Backus dies

The man who developed the programming language for science and engineering has died at the age of 82

John Backus, the developer of the programming language Fortran, has died aged 82.

His death comes just three months after the 100th anniversary of the birth of Grace Hopper, who developed the companion programming language for business, Cobol.

Backus, who developed Fortran at around the same time as Hopper's breakthrough, died at his home in Oregon on Saturday. He worked for IBM, joining the company in 1950 after a stint in the army and various temporary jobs. He worked with a small team for a year developing in assembly language for the IBM 701, which was introduced in 1952.

Backus was unhappy as a programmer and found developing in assembly language (which was mainly 0s and 1s) a frustrating experience, which made him turn his mind to finding an easier way to programme. From that came the idea for a language that he took to the management of IBM. He told them that because around 75 percent of programming time was wasted with entering code and debugging it, he could save a lot of very expensive labour by developing a tool that could shorten the process.

IBM gave him a small budget and a team of programmers, and Backus began work on Fortran (the IBM Mathematical FORmula TRANnslation System) in 1953, the year after Hopper had begun work on A-0, the forerunner of Cobol.

Fortran caught on very quickly in the scientific and engineering communitues. Successive versions have added support for many areas and it is now used in professions such as climate modelling, computational fluid dynamics, computational physics, and computational chemistry.