John Warner Backus, born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1924, has just passed away. At 82, Backus died Saturday in Ashland, Oregon, according to IBM Corporation, where he spent his career. In 1954 he got his bosses to let him assemble a team that could design an easier system for programming. The result, Fortran, short for Formula Translation, reduced the number of programming statements necessary to operate a machine by a factor of 20. The Fortran programming language changed how people interacted with computers in the 1950s and paved the way for modern software.
The breakthrough earned Backus the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, one of the industry's highest accolades. Backus also won a National Medal of Science in 1975 and got the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the top honor from the National Academy of Engineering. Backus remained with IBM until his retirement in 1991. Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the particular grammar of computer languages. The system is known as Backus-Naur Form.
"Much of my work has come from being lazy. I didn't like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 (an early computer), writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs," Backus told Think, the IBM employee magazine, in 1979.