John Backus

When I was in High School, I enrolled in the only Computer Science course that we were offered. I loved it: coding, learning languages, solving problems. I was in my element. That year, we read a book about famous computer scientists. The first story remains etched into my mind to this day: a biography of and interview with John Backus, the developer of the language Fortran.

If you’ve never heard of that, Fortran was a language for programming IBM mainframe computers in the 50’s and 60’s. It became a standard, and many older professionals today learned Fortran in their college years. To accomplish something of this renown, Backus had to be brilliant. But his background was a lot more interesting than I would have imagined.

Backus was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family. His father, a stock broker, sent him to a notable private school, The Hill School. Not a great student, he said “The delight of that place was all the rules you could break.” (NYTimes Obituary) He failed out of UVA, and ended up drafted into the Army during the Second World War.

His army aptitude tests demonstrated a gift for math and science, and the government funded his education in a number of different fields, primarily mathematics. After contributing to the war effort, Backus landed at IBM, where he proposed the development of the FORTRAN language, and built the team that constructed it.

What I admire about him is his capacity to rebel. Obviously, he wasn’t one for rules and conventions. He didn’t seem to be interested in doing precisely what he was told, which can be a valuable way of life and point of view. Not that often are “wealthy ne’er-do-wells” known for their technical or scientific aptitudes.

So, here’s to someone who probably loved sneaking out, driving fast, and drinking beer as much as he loved machines and mathematics. I highly recommend reading his obituary and his wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Backus.