Wednesday 21 March 2007

John Backus - invisible face of FORTRAN dies

Punch cards like a hole in the head

I remember my friends who were studying Computer Science at the University of Lagos in the 1980s as they rushed to get their Hollerith punch cards of programming code to the Computer Centre ensuring the cards were in a certain order.

My first few lessons on Computer Science talked of those cards and the lecturer did in many ways lament the way he never got to touch the computers, but as we got to the topic of key-to-disc systems, the polytechnic acquired a number of Apple IIc and Apple IIe computers and we started programming in BASIC.

Formula Translation

Then in the second year we moved to FORTRAN 77, with the restriction of 80-column lines and the inability to compile our code because the lecturer who should have known better gave us a Pascal compiler instead of one for FORTRAN, it was well into the second semester when that error was noticed and corrected.

In the end, at examination time, we still had to write code on paper rather than offer a fully functional programme compiled on computer - my interest in computers however was helped by programming first and not having to do punch cards - FORTRAN was such good fun, sometimes, I wish I had the opportunity to do more after I left school.

A good friend and classmate went on to teach himself Cobol then won a scholarship to study in Russia, I dabbled with Pascal, took C courses and lately completed a module in my Masters programme using Java in Object-Oriented programming, but my enthusiasm for programming never matched the days when I was at the Federal Polytechnic, Ilaro.

Nameless but groundbreaking

What I even find quite interesting is that we always knew the prime movers behind most programming languages, Cobol - Grace Hopper, Pascal - Niklaus Wirth, C - Dennis Ritchie or C++ - Bjarne Stroustrup - of FORTRAN, it was developed within IBM but no face really appeared behind it, somehow, the innovation has been subsumed by the corporate personality.

So, I read this morning about John Backus, the developer of FORTRAN who died at 82 on Saturday and realized the name was not in anyway familiar, however, the obituary reads like someone who changed the way we use computers by simplifying the way to program computers.

He was a wayward student, he got his act together, formed an eclectic team and came up with something radical, then still worked for IBM all his career and in the tight computer circles he was recognised for the work he had done.

The FORTRAN interview

Then, I do remember when I was interviewing at the British Consulate in Lagos to visit the UK and the consulate officer asked me to name three programming languages since I worked with computers, I said, FORTRAN, Cobol, Basic and for measure added Algol.

He laughed and then shared a joke with me about asking the same question of a computer consultant running projects for a major bank in Nigeria, the consultant answered English, German and French, he was denied a visa, but my interview became a general discussion as we laughed and joked about other "consultants" and their funny answers, the ice had been broken and FORTRAN played a part.

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