John Backus

1997 Fellow

For his development of FORTRAN, and for contributions to computer systems theory and software project management

"I myself have had many failures and I've learned that if you are not failing a lot, you are probably not being as creative as you could be."

— John Backus

John Backus was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1924. He received an MS in mathematics from Columbia University (1950).

Shortly before he graduated, Backus interviewed at IBM and was hired to work on programming their new computer systems. By 1953, he was leading a small team to create an easy-to-use programming language for scientific users. At the time, programming was exceedingly difficult-Backus once described it as "doing hand-to-hand combat with the machine." After four years of intense effort, Backus' team produced the FORTRAN programming language. FORTRAN became a global standard for science and engineering and is still in use for certain applications, a testament to its good design.

Backus made many other important contributions to computer science, particularly in the area of functional programming languages and systems. He served on the international committees developing the ALGOL system of programming languages and, with Danish computer scientist Peter Naur, developed a common notation for describing the structure of programming languages, a method known as the Backus-Naur Form (BNF).

Backus won the National Medal of Science (1975) and the ACM Turing Award (1977), and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985). He passed away in 2007.


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