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]

Contents

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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