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John Backus
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John Backus

John Backus (born December 3, 1924) is an American computer scientist, notable as the inventor of the Fortran programming language, the first high-level language to achieve widespread use, and the Backus-Naur form almost universally used to define language syntax. He received a Turing Award in 1977 for these two seminal achievements.

Backus was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. He studied at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and was apparently not a diligent student. After entering the University of Virginia to study chemistry, and failing that, he then joined the US Army and began medical training, which he also dropped out of after nine months.

After moving to New York City he initially took training as a radio technician and discovered an interest in mathematics. He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in the topic in 1949, and joined IBM in 1950. During his first three years, he worked on the SSEC; his first major project was to write a program to calculate positions of the Moon.

The difficulties of programming were acute, and in 1954 Backus assembled a team to define and develop Fortran for the IBM 704 computer. Whilst arguably not the first high-level programming language, it was the first to achieve wide use.

Backus's Turing citation read as follows:

For profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.

He later worked on a functional programming language known as FP which was described in his Turing Award lecture "Can Programming be Liberated from the von Neumann Style?" Sometimes viewed as Backus's apology for creating Fortran, this paper did less to garner interest in his own FP than to spark research into functional programming in general. FP was strongly inspired by Kenneth E. Iverson's APL, even using a non-standard character set. Backus spent the latter part of his career developing FL, a successor to FP. FL was an internal IBM research project, and the language essentially disappeared when the project was finished. Only a few papers documenting the language remain.

He was named an IBM Fellow in 1987, and was awarded a Draper Prize in 1993. Backus retired in 1991

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