John Backus


(born Dec. 3, 1924, Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.) U.S. mathematician. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. He was head of a small group that in 1957 developed the computer language FORTRAN for numerical analysis. He contributed to the development of ALGOL and developed a notation known as the Backus Normal, or Backus-Naur, Form for defining the syntax of a programmable language (1959). He received the Turing Award in 1977.

For more information on John Warner Backus, visit

American computer scientist (1924–)

Backus was born in Philadelphia. After graduating from Columbia University, New York, he joined the staff of IBM in 1952 and remained with them until his retirement in 1991. From 1959 until 1963 he worked at the IBM Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York, and thereafter as an IBM Fellow at the IBM Research Laboratory, San Jose, California.

Backus has reported on the state of programming when he joined IBM. It was, he noted, “a black art, a private arcane matter.” All programming was done using machine or assembly language. There were no compilers, no index registers, and the programmer spent most of his time debugging the program and feeding it into the computer. The programmers actually cost more than the computer. Backus commented, “They dismissed as foolish plans to make programming accessible to a larger population,” it was inconceivable “that any mechanical process could possibly perform the mysterious feats of invention required to write an efficient program.”

In 1954 Backus led an IBM team determined to free computer programming from the professional élite. As the speed of computers increased it made no sense to have them standing idle while a programmer struggled to operate them. The problem was made more pressing by the development of the new and more powerful IBM 704. By late 1954 some of the main details of the high level language FORTRAN (from Formula Translation) had been established. Backus defined his aim as “to design a language which would make it possible for engineers and scientists to write programs for the 704.” The language itself was available in 1957 and soon became the most widely used programming language.

Backus, John Warner, 1924-2007, American computer scientist, b. Philadelphia, Pa., grad. Columbia (M.A. 1950). Trained as a mathematician, he was hired (1950) by IBM Corp. as a computer programmer. From 1954 to 1957 he lead a team that developed FORTRAN [for FORmula TRANslation], the first successful high-level programming language; it was designed for engineering and scientific applications. Fortran greatly eased computer programming by replacing the binary digits of machine language with algebraic symbols and English shorthand; a compiler converted the program into machine language. He retired from IBM in 1991. Backus also developed (1959) a system of notation for describing the syntax of high-level programming languages and was an advocate of functional programming, in which the emphasis is placed on describing a problem rather than specifying the steps required to solve it.
John Backus
Born (1924-12-03)December 3, 1924
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died March 17, 2007(2007-03-17) (aged 82)
Ashland, Oregon
Fields Computer Science
Institutions IBM
Alma mater Columbia University
Known for Speedcoding
Backus-Naur form
Function-level programming
Notable awards ACM Turing Award
Draper Prize

John Warner Backus (December 3, 1924 – March 17, 2007) was an American computer scientist. He directed the team that invented the first widely used high-level programming language (FORTRAN) and was the inventor of the Backus-Naur form (BNF), the almost universally used notation to define formal language syntax. He also did research in function-level programming and helped to popularize it.

The IEEE awarded Backus the W.W. McDowell Award in 1967 for the development of FORTRAN.[1] He received the National Medal of Science in 1975,[2] and the 1977 ACM Turing Award “for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.”[3]


Life and career

Backus was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. He studied at the The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and was apparently not a diligent student.[4] After entering the University of Virginia to study chemistry, he quit and was conscripted into the U.S. Army.[4] He began medical training at Haverford College[5] and, during an internship at a hospital, he was diagnosed with a cranial bone tumor, which was successfully removed; a plate was installed in his head, and he ended medical training after nine months and a subsequent operation to replace the plate with one of his own design.[6]

After moving to New York City he trained initially as a radio technician and became interested in mathematics. He graduated from Columbia University with a Master's degree in mathematics in 1949, and joined IBM in 1950. During his first three years, he worked on the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC); his first major project was to write a program to calculate positions of the Moon. In 1953 Backus developed the language Speedcoding, the first high-level language created for an IBM computer.[7]

Programming was very difficult, and in 1954 Backus assembled a team to define and develop Fortran for the IBM 704 computer. Fortran was the first high-level programming language to be put to broad use.

Backus made another, critical contribution to early computer science: during the latter part of the 1950s Backus served on the international committees that developed ALGOL 58 and the very influential ALGOL 60, which quickly became the de facto worldwide standard for publishing algorithms. Backus developed the Backus-Naur Form (BNF), in the UNESCO report on ALGOL 58. It was a formal notation able to describe any context-free programming language, and was important in the development of compilers. This contribution helped Backus win the Turing Award.

He later worked on a "function-level" 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 the FP language than to spark research into functional programming in general. An FP interpreter was distributed with the 4.2BSD Unix operating system. 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 (from "Function Level"), a successor to FP. FL was an internal IBM research project, and development of the language essentially stopped when the project was finished (only a few papers documenting it remain), but many of the language's innovative, arguably important ideas have now been implemented in versions of the J programming language.

Backus was named an IBM Fellow in 1963,[8] and was awarded a degree honoris causa from the Henri Poincaré University in Nancy (France) in 1989[9] and a Draper Prize in 1993.[10] He retired in 1991 and died at his home in Ashland, Oregon on March 17, 2007.[4]

Awards and honors


  1. ^ a b "W. Wallace McDowell Award". Retrieved April 15, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "The President's National Medal of Science: John Backus". National Science Foundation. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  3. ^ a b "ACM Turing Award Citation: John Backus". Association for Computing Machinery. Archived from the original on February 4, 2007. Retrieved March 22, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c Lohr, Steve (March 20, 2007). "John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  5. ^ "Inventor of the Week Archive John Backus". 2006-02. Retrieved August 25, 2011.
  6. ^ Grady Booch (interviewer) (September 25, 2006). "Oral History of John Backus" (pdf). Retrieved August 17, 2009.
  7. ^ Allen, F.E.. "The History of Language Processor Technology in IBM". IBM Journal of Research Development 25 (5, September 1981).
  8. ^ a b "John Backus". IBM Archives. Retrieved March 21, 2007.
  9. ^ a b "John Backus". Retrieved April 15, 2008.
  10. ^ a b "Recipients of the Charles Stark Draper Prize". Retrieved March 26, 2007.
  11. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  12. ^ "Fellow Awards 1997 Recipient John Backus". Retrieved April 15, 2008.

External links

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