The Draper Prize

1993 Winner: John W. Backus

For the development of FORTRAN, the first widely used, general purpose, high-level computer language.

Biography

John W. Backus assembled and led the IBM team responsible for the creation of FORTRAN, the first widely used computer programming language. Released in 1957, FORTRAN revolutionized software in the same way that the microprocessor revolutionized hardware.

Before FORTRAN arrived, computers had to be hand-coded -- programmed with a stream of digits that triggered a specific action in a machine. FORTRAN automated much of the work required, reducing the number of programming statements necessary by a factor of 20.

Backus was born in Philadelphia, Penn. in 1924. After a series of education and career shifts, he worked as an IBM programmer in New York City from 1950 to 1954, and then became manager of programming research in New York City from 1954 to 1959. He was a staff member of IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., from 1959 to 1963; and an IBM Fellow in both Yorktown and San Jose, Calif., from 1963 into the 1990s.

Backus worked at IBM until his retirement in 1991. Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the grammar of computer languages, a system known as Backus-Naur form.

In addition to the Draper Prize, Backus also earned the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery and the National Medal of Science in 1975. He died in 2007.

FORTRAN

FORTRAN, which stands for FORmula TRANslating system, was the first high-level computer language. Before its invention in the early 1950s, programmers could only create programs by directly coding the 1s and 0s that represent a computer’s logic circuits – an extremely complex and time-consuming process. FORTRAN, on the other hand, allowed users to work in something much closer to human language, then translate the result into code the machine could understand. This made programming much faster, easier, and more universal: whereas machine-language coding has to take into account the peculiarities of a specific machine, FORTRAN could be programmed on any machine, then translated to fit the machine you wanted to use. Because of these advantages, FORTRAN led to an explosion of new applications, new generations of programming languages, and eventually the profusion of computers that exists today.