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John W. Backus Dies at 82; Developed FORTRAN

kdawson posted about 7 years ago | from the go-to-considered-seminal dept.

Software 271

A number of readers let us know of the passing of John W. Backus, who assembled a team to develop FORTRAN at IBM in the 1950s. It was the first widely used high-level language. Backus later worked on a "function-level" programming language, FP, which was described in his Turing Award lecture "Can Programming be Liberated from the von Neumann Style?" and is viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORTRAN. He received the 1977 ACM Turing Award "for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages."

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271 comments

Wow. (2, Funny)

Mikachu (972457) | about 7 years ago | (#18411681)

FTA:

His daughter Karen Backus announced the death, saying the family did not know the cause, other than age.

Psh, he developed FORTRAN. I'm surprised he even lived to 82 without being killed by a rabid programmer. ;)

Re:Wow. (0, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411701)

Irreverant..but funny :P

Re:Wow. (2, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 7 years ago | (#18411751)

I'm surprised he even lived to 82 without being killed by a rabid programmer. ;)

I am inclined to blame him for Basic as well, because it started out as a kind of simplified Fortran.

Re:Wow. (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411815)

I am inclined to blame him for Basic as well, because it started out as a kind of simplified Fortran.

I'm more inclined to thank him for all the other high level programming languages.

ATTN: SWITCHEURS! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412163)

If you don't know what Cmd-Shift-1 and Cmd-Shift-2 are for, GTFO.
If you think Firefox is a decent Mac application, GTFO.
If you're still looking for the "maximize" button, GTFO.
If you don't know Clarus from Carl Sagan, GTFO.

Bandwagon jumpers are not welcome among real Mac users [atspace.com]. Keep your filthy PC fingers to yourself.

CARBON TRADING = ENVIRONMENTAL INDULGENCES (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412089)

If you're rich enough, you can buy your way out of environmental purgatory.

What do you know? (0, Troll)

SirGarlon (845873) | about 7 years ago | (#18412103)

Psh, he developed FORTRAN. I'm surprised he even lived to 82 without being killed by a rabid programmer. ;)
You disparage Mr. Backus's accomplishments for some cheap laughs, but could accomplish anything better? Do you even know how to code in FORTRAN?

Re:What do you know? (2, Funny)

LeninZhiv (464864) | about 7 years ago | (#18412197)

Indeedandhi s i nsight fulidea ofre mov nig thesigni ficanc e o f s p aces be tweenwo rdsw as real lyah eado fits time. :-)

Re:What do you know? (4, Insightful)

h2g2bob (948006) | about 7 years ago | (#18412199)

I do, in fact my main project is not only in FORTRAN but in standards compliant fixed form FORTRAN 77, huzzah!

Compared to more modern languages - by which I mean C - it's bad. There are plenty of things which drive me nuts - the need to define things a million times, the lack of any sane way to group variables.

But compared to what was around when it was made, it was a leap forward (assembly, anyone).

Also, lets not forget that it was made for... yes, that's right: punched cards! It has a maximum line width because of this (even if it's not on punched cards). This is, I think, one of the main reasons why FORTRAN encourages you to write code like it's in a big dense block (the lack of spaces, the inline looping of variables).

FORTRAN still has good use among physics labs, partly because there's a lot of physics-specific code that is made for it, and partly because everybody's already used to it. And it has been updated (F95) to include all the modern features you could want.

Still, you'd need to be mad to use it. Which is why I do.

Re:What do you know? (1)

red crab (1044734) | about 7 years ago | (#18412645)

FTA, he first wrote Fortran and then he developed BNF. Perhaps if it was the other way around, Fortan would had much simpler syntax?

FORTRAN isn't that bad. (1)

jellomizer (103300) | about 7 years ago | (#18412147)

FORTRAN isn't that bad of a language (and I am not one of those programmers who is over 50, or 30) But I program in it twice a week. It isn't as sleek as python. or as Powerful as C. But it seems to work. And it is just like every other language out there. Has all the main bits and pieces. The only thing I truely hat about it is not the Language but the stupid VAX/HP Compiler and Linkers. Which make every simple change a major task.

Re:Wow. (2, Insightful)

lbmouse (473316) | about 7 years ago | (#18412517)

"Psh, he developed FORTRAN. I'm surprised he even lived to 82 without being killed by a rabid programmer. ;)"

He lived to 82, I doubt there are any modern-day potato-ass programmers that could catch him even in his golden years. We should feel fortunate for his contributions and hope to hell we live that good of a life, that long. Now, where did I leave my Cheetos?

Re:Wow. (1)

ribuck (943217) | about 7 years ago | (#18412733)

Many years ago I saw an early book describing the advances that FORTRAN would bring, compared to assembler or autocode (which was like a kind of higher-level assembler). Recall that FORTRAN is a contraction of "Formula Translation". The promise made in the late 50's was that, with FORTRAN, you no longer needed to program your formulae. Instead, you simply had to write out your formulae and they would be evaluated, meaning no more opportunity for programming bugs to sneak in. If only!

Also known for... (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411689)

... Backus-Naur Form (BNF) grammars, the sine qua non of compiler design for the most-popular languages out there.

Truly an American icon. Even if you never ran LEXX or YACC in your life, Backus's impact on contemporary culture cannot be denied.

Re:Also known for... (4, Funny)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 7 years ago | (#18411799)

Truly an American icon. Even if you never ran LEXX or YACC in your life, Backus's impact on contemporary culture cannot be denied.

Many times I have edited lex and yacc code, but never have I understood what the hell I was doing.

Re:Also known for... (1)

rucs_hack (784150) | about 7 years ago | (#18411847)

Well I've taught Lex and Yacc, and it confuses me...

How they managed to come up with that stuff still amazes me.

Re:Also known for... (2, Interesting)

tcopeland (32225) | about 7 years ago | (#18411949)

> Many times I have edited lex and yacc code, but
> never have I understood what the hell I was doing.

So true. I'm writing a JavaCC book [generating...javacc.com] and I'm still learning new stuff about it even though I'm almost done with the book.

The thing that's worked best for me is writing the lexical spec first, then going back and writing the parser spec. At least then you know that the basic tokens of the language are being recognized before you try to shape them into a parse tree.

Re:Also known for... (4, Funny)

hey! (33014) | about 7 years ago | (#18412661)

Many times I have edited lex and yacc code, but never have I understood what the hell I was doing.


Well fear not. I think far fewer programmers today are familiar with BNF than back in the day when anyone who was not utterly worthless had a dog eared copy of The Unix Programming Environment. This means the end of all those tersely documented syntaxes, and with them those cryptic yacc scripts.

Modern system designers have taken a clean sheet approach to the problem of grammar, one which escapes the limits of technology in Backus' generation, when computing power was scarce relative to brain power. Today you are much more likely to be called upon to work with XML schemas, which follows a simple easily understood philosophy: if something is worth saying, then it is worth saying with a lot words.

Re:Also known for... (4, Informative)

belmolis (702863) | about 7 years ago | (#18411879)

BNF is a useful notation, but it is just a notation for context-free grammars, which had already been developed and whose properties were already understood. Chomsky described the Chomsky hierarchy of formal languages, including context-free languages (type 2), in 1956, three years before Backus introduced a primitive version of BNF in describing what became Algol 58. The basic ideas came from mathematical logic and linguistics. Backus' role was to introduce these ideas to the specification of computer languages, ironically in part in reaction to the problem of specifying Fortran, which is not context-free.

Re:Also known for... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411887)

Truly an American icon.
Congrats for your excellent troll. You've even been moderated informative. I tip my hat to you!

Re:Also known for... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412105)

Push another one onto the stack of computing gods. Someday during the final battle between men and AI we will have to pop that stack. Lets hope it is a long way off. And lets hope that Dijkstra isn't too angry at being close to Backus in the great stack in the sky. The irony of being in a stack with Backus would kill him with its irony if he weren't already dead.

Re:Also known for... (1)

Skater (41976) | about 7 years ago | (#18412455)

How does that song go?

If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand.
If there's a programmer heaven, well you know they've got a hell of a compiler!

No, wait, that's not it...

Backus-Naur Form (2, Interesting)

mwvdlee (775178) | about 7 years ago | (#18412303)

The funny thing about Backus-Naur Form is that Naur himself says it should be Backus Normal Form, like it was before Naur used a slightly modified version of it.

Worst headline ever (5, Funny)

WWWWolf (2428) | about 7 years ago | (#18411709)

John W. Backus Dies at 82; Developed FORTRAN

This has to be the worst Slashdot headline ever. Makes FORTRAN sound like a type of cancer or something. (I thought that stuff was more of COBOL's league.)

Re:Worst headline ever (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411721)

To me, it sounds like he is one of the few actual undead coder zombies out there.

So he developed FORTRAN as he died, huh? (5, Funny)

mushadv (909107) | about 7 years ago | (#18411765)

What does that entail? Did he hemorrhage "WRITE (6,7) 7 FORMAT(12H GOD DAMN IT)" and flatline? What about his death rattle? "STOP END"?

Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411817)

[Insert a "Fortran is dead" joke here]

We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (5, Informative)

quakeaddict (94195) | about 7 years ago | (#18411819)

If it were not for the work of that generation, and the creativity they displayed, our world would be a far different place.

Poke fun at Fortran all you want, but dammit I use code today to drive a statistical website that was written in the 60's, and it still runs great.

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/nde [ed.gov]

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (2, Insightful)

sosume (680416) | about 7 years ago | (#18411997)

..to drive a statistical website that was written in the 60's

talking about anachronisms ...

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (4, Funny)

aussie_a (778472) | about 7 years ago | (#18412145)

2060s dude, he's a time traveler. Although you don't want to know the cataclysm that forces future programmers to write in FORTRAN *shudder*

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (3, Interesting)

Slashamatic (553801) | about 7 years ago | (#18412159)

To heck with just statistics. Fortran is alive and well at the heart of some major airline reservations, checkin and cargo systems. yes, they tried to move to newer technologies but they couldn't handel the load, particularly at points when there is a lot of rescheduling such as during bad weather.

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412321)

Yah, and as any traveler can tell you, the rescheduling during bad weather works so perfectly now that there isn't any reason to change.

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (4, Informative)

Don_dumb (927108) | about 7 years ago | (#18412783)

Speaking of bad weather, I think these guys - http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/ [metoffice.gov.uk] who are the authority on weather prediction in the UK. Use Fortran for weather forecasting and climate prediction http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/nwp/numerical /fortran90/index.html [metoffice.gov.uk] and they don't seem to be tiring of it.

Personally I don't see why this man seems to be getting such a bad send off here. After all the man invented a programming language that at a time when their were few others around, a language that has survived in critical usage until today. There may be many geeks on this site, but I doubt many of those who seem to be dancing on his grave could have done something so difficult, anywhere near as well as he did.

Just because an old language is more difficult to use than some more modern ones, does not mean that old language is a bad thing to have existed. And it doesn't mean that it wasn't a great achievement.

Re:We Stand On The Shoulders of Giants (1)

smchris (464899) | about 7 years ago | (#18412807)

written in the 60's, and it still runs great.

If not great, at least "faster"?

My first programming class was GOTRAN and FORTRAN on punched cards. The college's IBM 1620 had the extra 64K memory unit in the second room too!

The Tombstone (5, Funny)

Nerdfest (867930) | about 7 years ago | (#18411821)

GOTO END or , for those that believe in reincarnation: GOSUB END

Re:The Tombstone (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412643)

Old programmers don't die. They just GOSUB without RETURN.

...viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORTRAN (3, Insightful)

_Hellfire_ (170113) | about 7 years ago | (#18411823)

I understand the context in which the word "apology" is being used (as in "justification"), but I had to laugh at the semantics of "apologising for FORTRAN".

82 is a good innings. No matter what you think of FORTRAN as a language, I think it's safe to say that it, and later some of the other really early languages advanced computer science greatly during its infancy. We have a lot to thank Backus for.

Re:...viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORT (1)

LizardKing (5245) | about 7 years ago | (#18411855)

I agree that an "apology" is too strong - FORTRAN was pretty damned good for the first high-level language. If you look at some of the alternatives that evolved shortly after FORTRAN, such as BCPL, they were much more limited. It's got to be remembered that it was the first language that established the notion of making programs portable, even if the first couple of versions were fairly closely tied to specific IBM machines.

Re:...viewed as Backus's apology for creating FORT (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 7 years ago | (#18411919)

FORTRAN was pretty damned good for the first high-level language. If you look at some of the alternatives that evolved shortly after FORTRAN, such as BCPL, they were much more limited.

Well, Lisp came out the next year, and has about the most versatile architecture of any language invented since.

The history of Fortran reads like the history of Ada, Basic and Perl. Continually being retrofitted with good ideas from other languages, but not very well and late in the game.

``apology'' (2, Informative)

majiCk (264238) | about 7 years ago | (#18412019)

I understand the context in which the word "apology" is being used (as in "justification"), ...

Actually, I'm pretty sure they do mean ``apology'' as in ``sorry, world''. Backus's work on FP was all about getting past the ``word-at-a-time'' assignment-based paradigm popularized by FORTRAN (the ``von Neumann bottleneck''), and moving on to more expressive algebraic programming techniques, today referred to as functional programming. Check out his Turing award lecture [stanford.edu] -- it's a great read!

Farewell John (5, Insightful)

LizardKing (5245) | about 7 years ago | (#18411833)

       PROGRAM FAREWELL_JOHN
       IMPLICIT NONE

       PRINT *, 'Farewell John W. Backus'

       STOP
       END

*
* End indeed ...
*

New meme (2, Interesting)

TuringTest (533084) | about 7 years ago | (#18412357)

I can see a new trend of "Goodbye cruel world" programs replacing the "Hello world" equivalents, as designers of programming language pass away.

FFS a person died... (3, Insightful)

Zapotek (1032314) | about 7 years ago | (#18411863)

...you insensitive clods!!

Show some respect instead of making lame FORTRAN jokes...

Re:FFS a person died... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412067)

I don't mean to be insensitive, but a lot of people die every day. Why should I stop my daily routine for just one?

Re:FFS a person died... (3, Insightful)

solevita (967690) | about 7 years ago | (#18412381)

I don't mean to be insensitive, but a lot of people die every day. Why should I stop my daily routine for just one?
Exactly. Mocking FORTRAN is a mark of respect. We're much more insensitive to all those people who die and and don't mentioned, especially if it's the result of something easily fixed, like providing a supply of clean drinking water. A fair few people due to preventable causes whilst I was typing out this post; think about that you insensitive clod.

Get over yourself! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412397)

There is always one on every "someone died" discussion on the internet. It is must be a universal rule that some hypersensitive pseudo-child has to show up and whine. People make jokes about bad things, especially death. It is part coping mechanism and part compliment to the subject. If people didn't care they wouldn't make the effort to make a joke. It is not like these people are turning up at the guys funeral and telling insulting jokes to his family and laughing in their faces as they cry.

Re:FFS a person died... (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412437)

Just because we're not openly weeping into our morning coffee does not mean we do not respect the talent and achievements of the man. I hate this attitude that death has to be seen as a sad or sorrowful time. If anything it should be a time to remember the person and their achievements; exactly what is happening here. The only time grief is called for is if you personally knew John Backus and will miss his company. Anything else is likely false grief, generated by some weird psychological conditioning that modern society has pushed on us that tells us we must grieve for people we do not know (See also: Princess Diana)

Be afraid, be very afraid (5, Insightful)

vivaoporto (1064484) | about 7 years ago | (#18411881)

With both the lack of interest and the distortion of the original goal, Computer Science as we know may be dying with the elders. Computer Science originally had nothing to do with computers (as in personal computer) per se, but with the science of computation, optimal algorithms for pure math problems, etc. Actually, it was nothing but a branch of Math. The way computer science is being dealt with nowadays, with disdain, lack of interest and with people thinking about it as a tool to put another "screw tighter" professional in the market, soon we may run out of real breakthroughs like the ones those genius created to pave the yellow brick road we run over nowadays.

Re:Be afraid, be very afraid (1)

ArsenneLupin (766289) | about 7 years ago | (#18411929)

The way computer science is being dealt with nowadays, with disdain, lack of interest and with people thinking about it as a tool to put another "screw tighter" professional in the market, soon we may run out of real breakthroughs like the ones those genius created to pave the yellow brick road we run over nowadays.
How true.

Re:Be afraid, be very afraid (2, Insightful)

tinkertim (918832) | about 7 years ago | (#18412241)

With both the lack of interest and the distortion of the original goal, Computer Science as we know may be dying with the elders. Computer Science originally had nothing to do with computers (as in personal computer) per se, but with the science of computation, optimal algorithms for pure math problems, etc. Actually, it was nothing but a branch of Math. The way computer science is being dealt with nowadays, with disdain, lack of interest and with people thinking about it as a tool to put another "screw tighter" professional in the market, soon we may run out of real breakthroughs like the ones those genius created to pave the yellow brick road we run over nowadays.


We're also out of good original movie plots, song lyrics and lots of other stuff too. Has absolutely nothing to do with TFA or your comment, but I figured I'd mention it.

Give things a little more time and widen your sampling before feeling the doomsday of stagnate science is upon us. Developers will always develop what people demand, and right now they are demanding web 2.0 social networking web sites and other things that more 'serious' users would deem trivial and wasteful. By that token all development that goes into these trivial things could also be considered trivial.

I do agree that we'll hit a lull, and I'm also inclined to feel that which yields no productive lasting result is relatively useless (games, mindless surfing, etc).

About 15 years ago the whole world started to open up to everyone in it. We [humans] are a small world network [wikipedia.org] (as far as the definition goes), consider each person being a node and consider the need for them to begin trusting eachother for that network to be efficient and productive.

The fact that this trust is forming through the (technology wasting) we both bitch about is nothing less than amazing. We will get out of that 'lull' sooner or later :) In effect, while a bit maddening, you're watching a network self-improve simply because it must. Nothing trivial about that.

Relax, a little :)

Re:Be afraid, be very afraid (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412287)

The fact that this trust is forming through the (technology wasting) we both bitch about is nothing less than amazing.

It's also not true.

Re:Be afraid, be very afraid (2, Insightful)

dk.r*nger (460754) | about 7 years ago | (#18412735)

With both the lack of interest and the distortion of the original goal, Computer Science as we know may be dying with the elders. Computer Science originally had nothing to do with computers (as in personal computer) per se, but with the science of computation, optimal algorithms for pure math problems, etc. Actually, it was nothing but a branch of Math. The way computer science is being dealt with nowadays, with disdain, lack of interest and with people thinking about it as a tool to put another "screw tighter" professional in the market, soon we may run out of real breakthroughs like the ones those genius created to pave the yellow brick road we run over nowadays.


Naa. I'm sure back when car became widely available and used, some of the "elders" complained that now everybody is a "driver", and they don't even know the intrigate details of internal combustion.

Computer science is alive and well, there are merely two things happening that disorts the view:
- "Original" CS has been rolled back into math. You don't do computational heavy math without computers anymore, so why keep CS as a seperate field? Heavy computation is also interesting in lots of other fields, especially medicine and biology.
- "New" CS is a trade. Programmers, developers, project managers etc.

There's plenty of novel ideas and innovation out there. Look at SUNs Sparc T1, IBMs Power Cell (hardwarewise) and stuff lige virtualization (both machines (xen, vmware) and programs (java, .NET)). Web Services, the semantic web? Search engines? New language features, like LINQ?

But if you believe that C++ was the height of evolution, well, then, yes, CS is dead.

Fond Memories of FORTRAN IV (1)

Anthony (4077) | about 7 years ago | (#18411911)

By the time I was clacking out my tragic FORTRAN programs on a card punch machine, the language was already over 20 years old.

Re:Fond Memories of FORTRAN IV (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412277)

Yes - the cards. And that feeling like you were gambling when you waited to see if the thing ran or not ...

An inspiration (1)

tigersha (151319) | about 7 years ago | (#18411915)

Backus' Turing Award Lecture about FP was a true inspiration for me and has influenced a lot of what I have done over the years. Here's to you Mr Backus, your name will live on beyond eternity.

No need to apologise (2, Insightful)

jandersen (462034) | about 7 years ago | (#18411963)

...Backus's apology for creating FORTRAN...

(yes, yes, I know, he's no apologising in the usual sense; this is a play on words, or a pun, as it is also known)

Still, FORTRAN was and still is one of the great programming languages. There are many languages that offer better features and are much suitable for general usage, but there's huge number of programs written in FORTRAN, and many in science still prefer it to C/C++; FORTRAN is very well suited for numerical calculations, which is after all what is was made for.

rest in peace (5, Informative)

dario_moreno (263767) | about 7 years ago | (#18411991)

Maybe it's because I was breastfed with BASIC from a very young age, but when I was forced to learn FORTRAN to work on legacy code I discovered after some initial, computer science taught disgust, that it was really the best way to express myself in code, better than with anything else, and I owe my present university position to FORTRAN because it made me so productive. I guess it was because the language was conceived by engineer, scientists oriented types, and not by formal logic adepts or grammar nazis. I still teach FORTRAN to this day, using F90/F95 in all its power, and MATLAB-like exposed students tend to enjoy it because they can develop simple and efficient numerical codes much faster than with anything else; some of them found positions thanks to it. The trick is to use FORTRAN for what it's for (numerical arrays, heavy linear algebra, easily parallelizable scientific computing) and not strings or files manipulation, linked lists (LISP) , graphics or system : for that there is C(++), and tons of libraries. If the code grows larger than 10 000 lines, very strong discipline is necessary, and that's where true OO can be pertinent. In scientific code FORTRAN tends to be 20% faster than the best possible C++ implementation because the grammar is so simple that compilers tend to understand better the code and can vectorize or optimize it much farther than C ; and there is much less overhead than with C++ because the objects are simpler to manipulate. Major code used in the industry (Star-CD, Gaussian for instance) is still written in FORTRAN for those (and legacy) reasons.

Re:rest in peace (1)

iangoldby (552781) | about 7 years ago | (#18412161)

The trick is to use FORTRAN for what it's for ... and not strings or files manipulation, linked lists (LISP) , graphics or system
You mean there's life after forms, databases, and web 2.0? ;-)

Re:rest in peace (3, Insightful)

Threni (635302) | about 7 years ago | (#18412715)

> You mean there's life after forms, databases, and web 2.0? ;-)

I'm sure there are millions of HTML hairdressers out there who don't know the first thing about real programming.

Re:rest in peace (4, Insightful)

justthinkit (954982) | about 7 years ago | (#18412251)

Mod parent up one more, he deserves a +5. As an engineering student in the later 70s/80s, Fortran was all I knew or cared to know. My one Comp Sci course was beginning Fortran programming -- the whole thing is probably learnable in a few hours today. My final year thesis was a 6000 line Fortran simulation used to determine the feasibility of building a "Two Stage Spouted Bed Coal Pyrolysis Plant" in China (it was).

95 percent of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran.

It is easy to criticize, as many other posts have done, something invented half a century ago. Personally, I miss being able to use Fortran (or a procedural basic) to solve today's problems -- we've given ourselves over to the machine's favorite language (C) while we pat ourselves on the back for how smart we are now (as we create write-only code).

I wish this [cminusminus.org] had become more popular. There's still time.

Re:rest in peace (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412407)

In scientific code FORTRAN tends to be 20% faster than the best possible C++ implementation because the grammar is so simple that compilers tend to understand better the code and can vectorize or optimize it much farther than C

I'm losing my mods points on this article but statements like this just piss me off. This is only true if the C/C++ programmer doesn't know what they are doing. I work with engineers all the time who say the same thing about FORTRAN but not once has anyone ever been able to show me a piece of FORTRAN code that I couldn't recode in C with the same or better performance. I have done it on numerous occasions to the shock of my fellow workmates (who obviously can't code C/C++ for crap).

FORTRAN is not all bad and I use it for certain things but to make such statements about performance just shows lack of experience/skill.

Re:rest in peace (2, Interesting)

dario_moreno (263767) | about 7 years ago | (#18412541)

there was an article on that in "computers in science and engineering" a few years ago. I do this experience every year with my students and it still holds. Just have a look at the generated assembler of a commercial Fortran compiler with optimization turned on and compare it to the same code in C and especially C++ and look at register use, number of FLOP generated, use of vectorized extensions, complex instructions and so. It is all the truer with all hardware optimization of nowadays. Of course if you spend 10 times as much time optimizing formulas and assigning variables to registers, your C code can be as fast as optimized Fortran ; we are speaking about straight-to-the point code. I know from hardware counters that my code runs at maybe 10% of theoretical machine efficiency ; but I do not have a few years to optimize everything.

Re:rest in peace (5, Insightful)

Wormholio (729552) | about 7 years ago | (#18412433)

I too still teach my students (in physics and astronomy) to use Fortran, for many of the reasons listed above. While it may also be useful for them to go on to learn other languages, their primary focus is on the physics problems they need to solve and the numerical algorithms needed to help them do that. Fortran makes it easy for them to get started and then focus on the calculations, not on grammar or philosophy.

Fortran has been criticized because you can write "spaghetti code" or other crap, while other languages supposedly protect you from the mistakes you can make in Fortran. But you can write crappy code in any language (including "spaghetti classes"). I teach my students to write with good style. They know their code has to be clearly understandable not just to the machine but also to someone else who is familiar with the goal of the code but not the details. Trying to enforce good style through grammar is misguided at best, just as it is in writing in general. Developing good style is a personal, ongoing process for writing anything, including good code.

RIP and thank you (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18411993)

Old programmers don't die, they simply reboot...

Jokes Apart, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your formidable contribution to computing. May your soul rest in peace.

Famous for two other things as well (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412055)

Played Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island, and was the voice of Mr. Magoo.

Re:Famous for two other things as well (1)

pipatron (966506) | about 7 years ago | (#18412127)

Are you sure you don't mean Jim Backus, you know, the guy that played Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island, and was the voice of Mr. Magoo.

What's with the flaming? (4, Insightful)

Wizard052 (1003511) | about 7 years ago | (#18412095)

What's so wrong with FORTRAN? From the sound of things, it's like the guy committed a crime or something...if it was so 'destructive' or whatever then how come it got so popular? Or did it? Why did so many choose to use it?
And for that matter, what IS 'constructive'? Maybe C++? And whatever that is, it wasn't influenced in any way by FORTRAN?

Just evolution, people... the TV scorning the radio as backward!?

Please MOD this up (1)

GreggBz (777373) | about 7 years ago | (#18412267)

Sure it's flawed in certain ways by todays standards, but that fact that it still has an application really speaks to it's design. It was the FIRST high level language for cripes sake.

Re:What's with the flaming? (2, Interesting)

MichaelSmith (789609) | about 7 years ago | (#18412279)

What's so wrong with FORTRAN?

Well nothing really. It was a good, early attempt. Its mistake was in surviving too long.

From the sound of things, it's like the guy committed a crime or something

Yeah I have been one of the worst offenders in this article. Sorry about that. He was obviously an accomplished guy and I am sorry he is gone.

...if it was so 'destructive' or whatever then how come it got so popular?

Hard to explain. It attracted a certain, lets say, blue collar group of programmers. People who like all their identifiers to be called MODSTR and ARGSET. Lisp was the gay, lower case language. FORTRAN was for REAL MEN who type REAL CHARACTERS. These were scientists who wanted to knock out quick, fast and dirty code. It was the perl of its day, and like perl, got used for things it should have not been used for.

Or did it? Why did so many choose to use it?

Something about the compilers which were built for it got it entrenched in the performance computing field. To this day people will claim that fortran code runs faster than anything else for pure numerical applications. I would be surprised if it was still true, though.

Re:What's with the flaming? (1)

Cro Magnon (467622) | about 7 years ago | (#18412841)

FORTRAN survived because it was the best at what it did. I'm sure it did get used in tasks that it wasn't well suited for, partly because the alternative was assembler language, but for math/science apps, it ruled.

Just to give people something to think aboout. (2, Insightful)

leviccampbell (972435) | about 7 years ago | (#18412135)

If Mr. Backus hadn't developed fortran, would we be as advanced scientificaly as we are now?

Remember him not for FORTRAN (5, Interesting)

Edward Kmett (123105) | about 7 years ago | (#18412263)

I find it somewhat troubling that in this article John Backus is remembered primarily for the genie that he tried to put back in the bottle.

FORTRAN was utilitarian and procedural and good at enabling engineers and scientists to get work done. However, the problem with FORTRAN is the imperative pattern of though that it imposed led us to tell the computer a precise sequence of steps to accomplish each task. It doesn't offer information on dependencies, simply a "go here, do that" sequence of instructions. Imperative programs are inherently hard to reason about in terms of global state and effects and as written tend to be subject to off-by-one errors.

Backus saw this in 1978! See http://http//www.stanford.edu/class/cs242/readings /backus.pdf [http].

His insight spawned a great deal of the interest in functional programming languages. It was been credited by Paul Hudak of Haskell fame http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=72551.7255 4 [acm.org] (ACM membership required) (summarized here http://lambda-the-ultimate.org/classic/message4172 .html [lambda-the-ultimate.org]) and others as really helping to turn the tide and kept functional programming languages from being snuffed out.

A lot of people don't see the point, having never programmed in a functional programming language like Haskell or ML. However even those people see dozens of cores on the horizon and wonder how they are going to deal with the debugging issues associated with all of the threads to keep those processors churning.

Functional programming offers an alternative viewpoint that is arguably much better suited to handle multiple CPUs working on large datasets. A case for this was recently reiterated by Tim Sweeney of Epic Megagames fame who said "in a concurrent world, imperative is the wrong default!" http://www.st.cs.uni-sb.de/edu/seminare/2005/advan ced-fp/docs/sweeny.pdf [uni-sb.de].

Haskell has brought Software Transactional Memory (STM) into play offering an alternative approach to traditional mutexes and locks that is compositional in nature unlike locking models. This is an approach that isn't readily emulable in an imperative setting because of the lack of guarantees about side effects. http://research.microsoft.com/~simonpj/papers/stm/ index.htm [microsoft.com].

These are solutions to real problems that we are experiencing today, not some academic sideshow, and they arise from a school of thought that he helped bring a great deal of attention to.

If you want to do something to remember Backus take the time to learn OCaml or Haskell or even just take the time to learn how to effectively use the map and fold functions in Perl, PHP or Ruby.

It is his willingness to turn his back on what was percieved as his greatest work when confronted with a better idea for which I will remember him and I am a better programmer today for having learned what I could from his ideas.

Re:Remember him not for FORTRAN (1)

p3d0 (42270) | about 7 years ago | (#18412689)

Imperative programs are inherently hard to reason about in terms of global state and effects and as written tend to be subject to off-by-one errors.

Backus saw this in 1978!

And McCarthy saw this in 1958! [wikipedia.org]

FORTRAN greatest time save since assembler (5, Insightful)

DollyTheSheep (576243) | about 7 years ago | (#18412313)

First there was machine language. You hand coded all the little ones and zeros manually to get your machine code. Then came assembler which was a great time saver with all its mnemonics, registers and loops.

The next step was a real higher-level language: FORTRAN. Its estimated, that this meant a time saving ratio for programmers of 10:1 against assembler. This rate of improvement was never reached again. All other improvements in programming are only incremental compared to that.

Incorrect headline (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412697)

He succumbed to the Y2K7 glitch.

Maybe this will stop ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 years ago | (#18412711)

all of the users that insist on making themselves look computer savvy by saying "Well I was programming fortran in the 60's.....".

Seriously. It happened two days ago to me.

Peter
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