Tuesday, March 20, 2007

do i=1,n print(6,*) 'RIP' end do

The NYTimes is reporting that John Backus has died. Backus led the team at IBM that developed Fortran and revolutionized computer programming. He sounds like quite a guy. From the article:

In 1953, frustrated by his experience of “hand-to-hand combat with the machine,” Mr. Backus was eager to somehow simplify programming. He wrote a brief note to his superior, asking to be allowed to head a research project with that goal. “I figured there had to be a better way,” he said.

Mr. Backus got approval and began hiring, one by one, until the team reached 10. It was an eclectic bunch that included a crystallographer, a cryptographer, a chess wizard, an employee on loan from United Aircraft, a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a young woman who joined the project straight out of Vassar College.

“They took anyone who seemed to have an aptitude for problem-solving skills — bridge players, chess players, even women,” Lois Haibt, the Vassar graduate, recalled in an interview in 2000.

Mr. Backus, colleagues said, managed the research team with a light hand. The hours were long but informal. Snowball fights relieved lengthy days of work in winter. I.B.M. had a system of rigid yearly performance reviews, which Mr. Backus deemed ill-suited for his programmers, so he ignored it.

My own work would be dramatically different without Backus' influence. In his honor, I'm going to try to get something done today.

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