John Backus (1924-2007) led the team at IBM that developed Fortran, the first successful sophisticated programming language.
FORTRAN, which stands for Formula Translator, became the standard language for writing programs for several decades. All computer scientists learned it in the 1960s and 1970s. Ken Thompson, who along with Dennis Ritchie created the Unix operating system in 1969, declared that "95 percent of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran. It was a massive step."
Mr. Backus flunked out of the University of Virginia, and was drafted in 1943. He aced Army aptitude tests and the government paid for him to go back to school, and he eventually earned a master's degree in math from Columbia University in 1950. He subsequently joined IBM.
Mr. Backus had an informal, but hardworking, managerial style in leading his team to develop Fortran. He once said that innovation was a constant process of trial and error.
- "John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies," N.Y. Times (Mar. 20, 2007).