How John Backus’ Fortran beat the ‘priesthood’ of machine code – The New Stack
John Back is one of the founding ancestors of 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, still referred to today as “the first high-level programming language” on the IBM web pages. 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 inside the machine.”
But what was this world like when Fortran arrived? And how did Backus and his team achieve this historic breakthrough?
Although Backus passed away in 2007, the world magically saw him sharing memories of the history he helped shape – in a rare 48 year old video rediscovered by Silicon Valley Computer History Museum. The museum spent years restoring video footage of the legendary Los Alamos Conference, a gathering of dozens of the world’s top computer scientists, engineers, and software pioneers.
The conference had been a moment of living history, with appearances from the co-inventor of ENIAC Jean Mauchly, Richard Bloch (who had worked with Grace Hopper in 1944), and pioneer of the algorithm Edsger W. Dijkstra.
Last month the museum was inaugurated its lost treasuresoffering a look back at 1976 – America’s Bicentennial – including this chance to see Backus share his memories of “Programming in America in the 1950s”.
And a chance to see other computer pioneers express their appreciation for all that Backus had done.
The way we were
Backus began his presentation that day remembering a time when programming “was really fun— in part because the computers of the day challenged them with “absurd difficulty.”
“The programmer really had to be a kind of ingenious inventor to adapt his problem to the strange idiosyncrasies of the machine he was programming.”
Faced with tiny storage – and a limited instruction set – a programmer like Backus “had to employ every trick he could think of to get the program running fast enough to justify the rather huge cost of running it. And he must have done all of this on his own ingenuity, since the only information he really had was the problem to be solved and the manual for the machine.
Backus laughingly recalls that “Sometimes there wasn’t even a manual for the machine…”
But to make his point, Backus compared it to 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 art or mystery, and his ability to produce depends to a very large extent on his ability to find what he needs to use in a six-inch textbook of thickness of a baroque programming or operating system.
In contrast, programming from the early 1950s has been a dark art, he said, calling it a very private and mysterious matter. Often it was simply “involving just a programmer, a problem, a computer, and sometimes a small library of subroutines, and possibly a primitive assembly program”.
It gave the kingdom a “vital frontier enthusiasm”, Backus said poignantly – although “like any other frontier group, the programming community also has its snake oil purveyors”. Backus recalled that “certain early concepts and programming systems enjoyed a kind of fantastic fame which resulted from the energy with which they were disseminated more than anything else…”
Backus laughed, adding that “Sometimes snake oil worked, and sometimes it didn’t.”
Yet it led to a culture that would also have real-world consequences, as many actors in the programming world seemed assess its abstruse. Fierce debates raged, for example, over whether data should be encoded in pure binary or in a more user-friendly language. encoded in binary decimal Numbers.
“Just as Westerners and other types of frontiersmen developed a rather chauvinistic pride in their mastery of frontiers and a corresponding type of conservatism that went with it, so many pioneer programmers in the 1950s began to think of themselves as members of ‘a priesthood guarding skills and mysteries that were far too complex for ordinary people,’ he said.
Plans to make programming accessible to large populations have been met with “considerable hostility and derision”, as well as skepticism of this heretical notion that “a mechanical process could do all things mysterious and inventive they have done to produce an effective program.
“So they were really opposed to those few crazy revolutionaries who wanted to make programming easy enough that anyone could do it.”
And that was the world Fortran faced. Even after recognizing a need, “the resistance from the priesthood was such that it was all likely to be ignored – unless you could turn the idea into a fully developed system that would prove the practicality of the idea. without a shadow of a doubt.”
But luckily, Backus had a different mindset. The Associated Press cited Backus’ 1979 self-assessment to IBM Employee Magazine Think that “much of my work comes from my laziness. I didn’t like writing programs, so… I started working on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.
In his 1976 speech, Backus credits the team he led for solving “a lot of very difficult problems” for the FORTRAN 1 compiler, adding, “I was not one of those people . I was sitting around doing things that are hard to describe…”
But later in the speech, one of Backus’ colleagues at IBM corrects the record. “I was in the office with him every day. And he didn’t doodle like he says. He was there, leading the troops all the time.
A historic consensus
In fact, Backus’ audience was filled with computer pioneers contributing their own knowledge of early programming.
The first question came from Betty Holbert, who identified herself as a worker with 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 for Backus’ recollections of how, in 1954, IBM people traveled the country describing FORTRAN. “For me, this is a real first, because it is an attempt at consensus. And I consider this to be the beginning of the standardization of languages.
And Backus admitted he was actually surprised by the warm welcome Fortran received when it met these potential users.
“I was expecting to get, you know, a tremendous amount of objections and suggestions…” Yeah, his team had put a lot of work into this, but when those meetings finally came around, Backus jokes that maybe “they didn’t believe it either, or they didn’t understand it, because of my garbled presentation.
But Holberton cut him off. “I remember the discussion in Washington. It was very lively!”
Another question came from “Knuth at Stanford” – legendary computer scientist Donald Knuth – who wondered who coined the word software. And another question came from an eminent mathematician John Brillart, who admitted that Backus’ description of a priesthood opposing easier languages was accurate – but with an additional caveat. “I would have called people on the opposite side part of a priesthood. In other words, the optimizers writing the language, “the people I came into contact with…many of them their acted as if they were part of a priesthood.
Backus replied, his sheepish smile a kind of grateful admission, even as he told a knowing laugh from the audience, wryly, that “the sociology of the priesthood is very complex, needless to say.”
But almost instantly there’s another response from the mathematician (and Turing Prize winner) Richard Hamming, who said of Backus: “I think he was way too modest about what happened. Opposition to FORTRAN and any automatic coding system seems very very high to me. And the courage he had to persist, I think, should be recognized. He pretended not to do anything. I was privileged, while using the [Fortran-running mainframe, the IBM] 701, to have lunch with him regularly. I was extremely impressed with his courage in holding the group together in the face of strong priesthood opposition.
And then there was spontaneous applause.
But before the next question, Backus insisted on intervening in his answer. “It didn’t take courage. It was very fun!”