John Backus

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John Warner Backus (December 3, 1924 – March 17, 2007) was an American computer scientist. He directed the team that invented the first widely used high-level programming language (FORTRAN) and was the inventor of the Backus-Naur form (BNF), the almost universally used notation to define formal language syntax. He also did research in function-level programming and helped to popularize it.

The IEEE awarded Backus the W.W. McDowell Award in 1967 for the development of FORTRAN.[1] He received the National Medal of Science in 1975,[2] and 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 publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.”[3]


Life and career

Backus was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. He studied at the The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and was apparently not a diligent student.[4] After entering the University of Virginia to study chemistry, he quit and was conscripted into the U.S. Army.[4] He began medical training and, during an internship at a hospital, he was diagnosed with a cranial bone tumor, which was removed successfully; a plate was installed in his head, and he ended medical training after nine months and a subsequent operation to replace the plate with one of his own design.[5]

After moving to New York City he trained initially as a radio technician and became interested in mathematics. He graduated from Columbia University with a Master's degree in mathematics during 1949, and joined IBM in 1950. During his first three years, he worked on the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC); his first major project was to write a program to calculate positions of the Moon. During 1953, John Backus also developed the language Speedcoding, the first higher-order language created for an IBM computer.[6]

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