New York Times Technology  on
June 13, 2001

Pioneers of the 'Fortran' Programming Language


THEY were young, in their 20's and early 30's, brimming with
energy and optimism, a tightknit team. Their goal was to 
simplify programming and open up computing to more people. The
industry consensus was that they were trying the impossible. 
They suffered setbacks and disappointments. A six- month
timetable for completion became nearly three years.

It was called Formula Translator - Fortran, for short. John
Backus, who led the team at I.B.M., came up with the name to no
great enthusiasm from his colleagues. They used to joke that it
sounded like something spelled backward. But nobody could come
up with a better idea, so the name stuck, as did Fortran, a
programming language that was a historic breakthrough in computing.

Today, Fortran is often mentioned wistfully by computer
scientists and veteran programmers as the first programming
language they learned but then abandoned as newer languages
were developed for new kinds of computing. But to point out how
quickly programming has moved to generations of new tools does
not minimize the extraordinary advance that Fortran gave to the
world of software. Other programming languages rose from the
foundation that Fortran built.

Computer historians have described Fortran as the software
equivalent of the transistor. Kenneth Thompson, who created the
Unix operating system at Bell Laboratories in 1969, observed
that "95 percent of the people who programmed in the early
years would never have done it without Fortran. It was a
massive step." Or, as James Gray, a leading software researcher
who now works for Microsoft, declared with a biblical flourish,
"In the beginning, there was Fortran."
Before Fortran, putting a human problem - typically an
engineering or a scientific calculation - on a computer was an
arduous and arcane task. It could take weeks and required
special skills. Like high priests in a primitive society, only
a small group of people knew how to speak to the machine. Yet
there were some heretics in the priesthood, and Mr. Backus was
one of them. "I figured there had to be a better way," he
recalled nearly five decades later at his San Francisco home,
which overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. "You simply had to make
it easier for people to program."

In late 1953, Mr. Backus sent a brief letter to his boss,
asking that he be allowed to search for a "better way" of
programming. He got the nod and thus began the research project
that would eventually produce Fortran. The managerial touch was
light: Mr. Backus never made a formal budget, even as schedules
slipped and the team grew to 10 people.

The team was heavy with math training because so much of
computing at the time was numerical analysis and mathematics,
but it was an eclectic group - a crystallographer, a
cryptographer, a chess wizard, an employee lent from an
aircraft manufacturer, a researcher borrowed from M.I.T. and a
young woman who joined the project straight out of Vassar College.

They worked together in one open room, their desks side by
side. They often worked at night because it was the only way
they could get valuable time on the I.B.M. 704 computer, in
another room, to test and debug their code. The odd hours and
close work bred camaraderie. For relaxation, there were chess
matches and, in the winter, impromptu snowball fights. They
knew one another, and they knew their code and the machine they
were working on, right down to the metal. "We were the hackers
of those days," said Richard Goldberg, now 77, one of the
original Fortran team members.

The success of the team hinged on two things. First, the group
devised a programming language that resembled a combination of
pidgin English and algebra. The result was a computing
nomenclature that was similar to algebraic formulas that
scientists and engineers used in their work. So Fortran opened
up programming to the people whose problems were being put on
computers in those days. With some training, they were no
longer dependent on the computing priesthood to translate their
problems into the language of the machine.

Professional programmers at the time worked in binary, the
natural vernacular of the machine then and now - strings of 1's
and 0's. There were also some "assembly" languages. These
allowed programmers to write instructions using mnemonic
abbreviations - perhaps LD for "load" or MPY for "multiply,"
followed by a number to designate a data location in the
computer's memory. An "assembler" program then translated, or
assembled, these symbolic programming instructions into binary.
Each assembly language was tailored to a specific kind of
computer, and a line of assembly language corresponded to a
line of binary code.

MR. BACKUS had his team aim for a very different target. The
Fortran language focused more on the problem the person using
the computer wanted to solve than on the machine's operations.
Indeed, a line of Fortran code could translate into many
machine instructions, in binary. Fortran moved communication
with a computer up a notch, closer to the human and away from
the machine. That is why Fortran is called the first high-level

The other great success of Fortran was that it worked so well.
That is, Fortran generated programs that ran as efficiently, or
very nearly as efficiently, as the ones hand-coded
painstakingly by the programming elite. Machine time was a
precious, costly resource. Matching the run-time efficiency of
human programmers was thought to be impossible. The I.B.M. team
overcame that barrier because of the masterful design of the
Fortran compiler. Put simply, a compiler is software that
captures the human intent of a program and recasts it in a way
that is understandable - executable - by the machine.

For his first two recruits, Mr. Backus tapped Irving Ziller and
Harlan Herrick, programming veterans, which in the early 50's
meant they had a couple years' experience. Mostly, Mr. Backus
simply chose people he spotted or who were recommended, people
who were bright and seemed to have a knack for programming.
Richard Goldberg, a math Ph.D., had just abandoned teaching
after a semester at Dartmouth College. He applied for a job at
I.B.M. and was hired. "I didn't know anything about computing,"
said Mr. Goldberg, who excelled in a three-month programming
course and was sent to the Backus team.

After graduating from Vassar, where she did well in math and
science, Lois Haibt was lured to I.B.M. by a starting salary of
$5,100, nearly twice the offer from Bell Laboratories. "They
told me it was a job programming computers," she said. "I only
had a vague idea what that was. But I figured it must be
something interesting and challenging, if they were going to
pay me all that money." David Sayre, a crystallographer, began
to use computers for his biophysics research, and found himself
pulled in. "You entered a world that kind of ran the way it was
supposed to, a world made for working out the logic of
something," Mr. Sayre said.

Fortran was presented to the computing world in February 1957
at the Western Joint Computer Conference in Los Angeles. At the
conference, I.B.M. arranged for what is known in the industry
today as a "demo" - a public demonstration - of Fortran.
Shortly before the conference, I.B.M. had asked a few of its
customers to come up with real-world computing chores, like
calculating airflows for the design of a jet wing. The problems
would be given to assembly programmers to code, but also
written in Fortran. When the Fortran-compiled programs ran on
the computer, they matched the hand- coded programs in terms of
running time on the machine. Fortran saved a lot of labor,
enabling professionals to program a problem about five times
faster than before; it also opened up programming to new
practitioners. "It was a revelation to people," Mr. Ziller
said, recalling the 1957 demo. "At that point, we knew we had
something special."

Today, the six surviving members of the original Fortran team
are in their 70's. They are far removed from the computer
business, but not altogether divorced from software. Mr. Backus
conceded that he "couldn't live without" his Palm hand-held
organizer, which is many, many times more powerful than the
room-size machines of the 50's.

Mr. Sayre has returned to crystallography, as a researcher
affiliated with the State University of New York at Stony
Brook. Like biology, crystallography is increasingly becoming a
computational science, relying on fast computers and clever
software. "With any luck, crystallography will take on a new
life, extending its reach, thanks to the magic of these
machines and software," Mr. Sayre said.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company