Why you should care

Because the invention of the first real-deal computer language gave developers the tools to build almost every piece of software that followed.

It was 1954 and somewhere in the offices of IBM, a 30-year-old whiz named John Backus and a small team of programmers came up with a new computer language. Backus later confessed that he was unsure of what he was doing. But his invention of FORTRAN — the first widely accepted high-level computer programming language — was about to change … well, just about everything.

The IBM machine Backus worked on — fondly named 704 — filled an entire room and ran on binary system-based machine code, a combination of 1s and 0s: the most basic way to store information on a computer. It used an early language called Assembly. But coding in Assembly was tedious, buggy and very expensive.

His father, a chemist, pushed him to follow in his own footsteps. So young Backus enrolled in college as a chemistry major, but he hated chemistry. He flunked out. He admitted he was “a terrible student and a goof-off.” Enter John Backus, who set part of the pattern for later genius innovators in the tech industry. He was a Pennsylvania-born-and-raised college dropout who had no idea what he wanted to do in life.

“I hated it,” said Backus. “They don’t like thinking in medical school. They memorize — that’s all they want you to do. You must not think.” Drafted in 1943, the Army sent Backus to lead an anti-aircraft squad. But when they realized he was smart, they yanked him out of combat and sent him to the place he probably hated most: school. The U.S. Army enrolled him in medical school, where he flunked out again.

It was 1946, when the war was over, in New York City, when finally he found something that fascinated him: radio. Backus discovered he was good at math and liked it because he could build and design things with math — cool things.

He was 22 and the feel-good music of the post-war inspired him. Backus wanted a Hi-Fi stereo system, but they were hard to come by, so he enrolled in a radio technology class to learn how to build one.

There, the light bulb flashed. Learning how to build radios, Backus discovered he was good at math and liked it because he could build and design things with math — cool things like radios and hi-fis, which were coming into their own.

Backus enrolled in Columbia University as a mathematics student. Third time lucky. He thrived and graduated in 1949.

When Backus was touring IBM in New York City, he mentioned to the tour guide that he was looking for a job. IBM pounced. The company interviewed him on the spot, and hired him.

For the next three years, Backus worked for IBM on a machine called the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. When he wasn’t fixing IBM’s gigantic, powerful calculator, Backus coded programs. He developed his first programming language called Speedcoding.

BW Image of computer equipment surrounding a room

IBM 704

Source IBM

Around that time, IBM had just launched its new 704 machine. IBM was hopeful about it, but the costs of software programming and maintenance exceeded the cost of building the 704 hardware.

Programming was the big problem. Industry insiders called it “the software crisis.”

Backus proposed to IBM that he develop a new “high-level” programming language that would work above the Assembly language — the base machine code that programmers used for software up until that point.

Just two years after FORTRAN’s official release in 1957, about half the world’s computer programmers were using it.

IBM gave the green light, and Backus and his team created FORTRAN in 1954. FORTRAN was officially released in 1957, essentially as a compiler to generate code for Assembly, but cutting the steps by 95 percent. In two years about half the world’s computer programmers were using it.

Backus’ FORTRAN didn’t just make a splash back in the 1950s. It’s continued to evolve and is used today in large computer systems and supercomputers. And much the way microchips continuously shrank the size and increased the speed of computers — giving way to the personal computer era — it was Backus’ FORTRAN coding language that sowed the seed for developing even higher-level coding languages like C and Visual Basic, in widespread use today. It’s these languages that developers use to write the scripts for everything from computer programs to apps for your phone.

Thanks to a two-time college dropout.

This OZY encore was originally published July 31, 2014.

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