How John Backus’ Fortran Beats Machine Code’s “Priesthood” – The New Stack

John Backus was one of the founders of early computer programming and in many ways paved the way for modern programming languages.

Backus led the team that developed the Fortran programming language in 1957, which is still touted today as “the first high-level programming language” on Web pages at IBM. As the Associated Press wrote – half a century later – in an obituary for Backus“Before Fortran, computers had to be meticulously ‘hand coded’ — programmed into the raw strings of numbers that triggered actions in the machine.”

But what was that world like when Fortran arrived? And how did Backus and his team achieve this historic breakthrough?

Although Backus died in 2007, the world magically caught another glimpse of him and shared memories of that history he helped shape – in a rare 48 year old video rediscovered by Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum† The museum spent years restoring video footage from the legendary Los Alamos conference, a gathering of dozens of the world’s top computer scientists, engineers and software pioneers.

The conference was a living history moment, with performances by co-inventor of ENIAC John MauchlyRichard Bloch (who had worked with Grace Hopper in 1944), and algorithm pioneer Edsger W. Dijkstra

The museum was unveiled last month are lost treasureswith a look back at 1976 – America’s bicentenary – including this chance to see how Backus shared his memories of ‘Programming in America in the 1950s’.

And a chance to see other computer pioneers express their appreciation for everything Backus had done.

The way we were

Backus started his presentation that day by recalling a time when programming “was real” pleasure” — partly because computers of the day challenged them with “absurd problems.

“The programmer really had to be a resourceful inventor to adapt his problem to the strange idiosyncrasies of the machine he was programming.”

John_Backus_2 (Creative Commons photo by PIerre.Lescanne via Wikipedia).

Faced with tiny storage — and a limited set of instructions — a programmer like Backus had to “use every trick he could think of to get the program to run fast enough to justify its rather massive cost. And he had to do it all at his own ingenuity.” because the only information he really had was the problem and the manual of the machine.”

Backus recalls with a laugh: “Sometimes there wasn’t even a machine manual…”

But to make his point, Backus contrasted it with the 1970s, a world where a programmer now had a superior who knew how to do a job — and how long it should take. “So his work is no longer considered an art or a mystery, and his productive capacity depends very much on his ability to find what to use in a six-inch-thick manual of some Baroque programming system or operating system. system.

Programming, on the other hand, in the early fifties used to be a dark art, he said, calling it a very personal and mysterious matter. Often it was just “just a programmer, a problem, a computer and sometimes a small library of subroutines and possibly a primitive assembly program.”

This gave the Empire a “vital frontier enthusiasm,” Backus said poignantly — although “like any other frontier group, the programming community also had its snake oil suppliers.” Backus recalled that “some early programming concepts and systems enjoyed a kind of fantasy fame that more than anything else resulted from the energy with which they were published…”

Backus laughed and added, “Sometimes the snake oil would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t.”

Still, this led to a culture that would also affect the real world, as many in the programming world seemed to where the his profundity. There have been heated discussions about, for example, whether data should be encoded in pure binary or in more user-friendly binary coded decimal numbers

“Just as Westerners and other frontier types developed a rather chauvinistic pride in their groundbreaking and a corresponding kind of conservatism that came with it, so many pioneering programmers in the 1950s began to think of themselves as members of a priesthood guarding skills and mysteries that were far away. . too complex for ordinary people,” he said.

Plans to make programming accessible to large populations have met with “considerable hostility and ridicule,” as well as skepticism about this heretical idea that “a mechanical process could do all the mysterious, inventive things they did to produce an efficient program.

“So they were really against those few crazy revolutionaries who wanted to make programming easy enough for anyone to do it.”

And that was the world Fortran faced. Even after acknowledging a need, “the resistance of the priesthood was such that the whole thing was likely to be ignored—unless you could convert the idea into a fully developed system that would prove the idea’s feasibility beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

But luckily Backus had a different mentality. The Associated Press cited Backus’ 1979 self-assessment for the IBM employee magazine Think that “Much of my work has come from laziness. I didn’t like writing programs, so…I started working on a programming system to make writing programs easier.”

In his 1976 speech, Backus mentions the team he led that solved “a lot of very difficult problems” for the FORTRAN 1 compiler, adding, “I wasn’t one of those people. I sat around and did things which were hard to describe…”

But later in the conversation, one of Backus’ employees at IBM corrects the record. “I was at his office every day. And he didn’t scribble as he says. He was there leading the troops the whole time.”

A historic consensus

Betty Holberton (right) in US Army photo (via Wikipedia) of Eniac between 1948 and 1955.

Betty Holberton (front right) programs the ENIAC computer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, BRL Building 328 (1940s/50s)

In fact, Backus’s audience was filled with computer pioneers bringing in their own inside knowledge about the early days of programming.

The first question came from: Betty Holberton, who identified himself as an employee of the Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology – NIST). In fact, Holberton was one of six women who programmed ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose electronic digital computer.

Holberton asked Backus’ memories of how IBM people traveled across the country in 1954 describing FORTRAN. “That’s a real first for me, because it’s an attempt to reach consensus. And I see that as the beginning of the standardization of languages.”

And Backus admitted that he was actually surprised by the warm reception the Fortran received when it met those potential users.

“I expected to get a huge amount of objections and suggestions…” Yes, his team had put a lot of work into it, but when those meetings finally came, Backus joked that maybe “they either didn’t believe it” or they understood it. not, because of my illegible presentation.”

But Holberton interrupted him. “I remember the discussion in Washington. It was very witty!”

    Betty Holberton speaking from the audience in 1976 (screenshot from CHM video of John Backus talk)

Betty Holberton spoke from the audience in 1976 during a speech by John Backus. (screenshot from CHM video).

Another question came from “Knuth at Stanford” – legendary computer scientist Donald Knuth – who wondered: who coined the word software?† And another question came from a prominent mathematician John Brilhart, who admitted that Backus’ description of a priesthood opposed to easier languages ​​was accurate—but with one caveat. “I would tell the people on the… opposite next to part of a priesthood.” That is, the optimizers writing the language, “the people I came into contact with…many of” them behaved very much as if they were part of a priesthood.”

Backus replied, his sheepish smile a kind of acknowledgment confession, even if he said to a telltale laugh from the audience, ironically, that “the sociology of the priesthood is very complex, needless to say.”

But almost immediately, there’s another response from mathematician (and Turing Prize winner) Richard Hammingwho says of Backus: “I think he has been far too modest about what happened. The opposition to FORTRAN and each automatic coding system seems very high to me. And I think the courage he had to persevere should be recognized. He pretended to do nothing. I had the privilege, while using the [Fortran-running mainframe, the IBM] 701, to have lunch with him regularly. I was deeply impressed by the courage he had to keep the group going in the face of strong priesthood opposition.”

And then there was spontaneous applause.

But for the next question, Backus insisted on intervening with his answer. “It didn’t take courage. it was very fun!”

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