06 April 2007

Taken For Granted?

It is a truism to say that, far too often we take for granted those things around us and that point was brought home to me last week with the passing of John Backus.

John Backus was the inventor of FORTRAN.

Now that may not mean a lot too many people, but FORTRAN was probably the first universal high-level computer programming language.

Without the advent of high-level programming languages there would be no browsers, there would be few wordprocessors and still less many of today's modern computer operating system.

As the Guardian observes:

“In 1954, IBM introduced the Model 704 Electronic Data-Processing Machine, the world's first mass-produced computer. Backus had worked on the design of the machine, but he was frustrated at the difficulties inherent in programming it. The machine only understood sequences of numerical codes, so programming was slow.

Backus decided that there had to be an easier way. It should be possible, he reasoned, to write the instructions for the computer in something resembling plain English, and have the computer translate that into the proper sequence of codes. He put this idea to his manager, who had the foresight to allow him to put together a small team to try it out. The result, announced in late 1956, was a "formula translation" language named FORTRAN, which enabled complex calculations to be expressed as a combination of English commands and mathematical formulae. Backus and his team confounded sceptics by demonstrating that programs written in FORTRAN were as efficient as those written in numerical codes. This was an important factor in ensuring the adoption of FORTRAN by the scientists and engineers who used the IBM 704.

Its success led to the creation of many other programming languages in the following years. …”

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