John Warner Backus

(1924 – 2007)

Born: December 3, 1924
Field: Programming languages
Focus: Developed the FORTRAN programming language for scientific     and mathematical applications.
Country: United States
Era: 1950 to 1969

FORTRAN (an acronym for FORmula TRANslation, the first high-level programming language [HLL]), was invented by John Backus for IBM in 1954 and released commercially in 1957. It is still used today for programming scientific and mathematical applications.
Backus headed the IBM team of researchers that invented FORTRAN at the Watson Scientific Laboratory at Columbia University in New York. The IBM team didn’t invent HLL or the idea of compiling programming language into machine code, but FORTRAN was the first successful high-level language, and the FORTRAN I compiler held the record for translating code for over 20 years.
FORTRAN is now over 45 years old and remains the top language in scientific and industrial programming. It has been constantly updated. FORTRAN has been used for programming video games, air traffic control systems, payroll calculations, numerous scientific and military applications, and parallel computer research. As the first high-level computer programming language, FORTRAN was able to convert standard mathematical formulas and expressions into the binary code used by computers. Thus a non-specialist could write a program in familiar words and symbols, and different computers could use programs generated in the same language. This paved the way for other computer languages such as COBOL, ALGOL and BASIC.

Backus won the 1993 National Academy of Engineering’s Charles Stark Draper Prize, the highest national prize awarded in engineering, and in 1977 he won the A.M. 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.

John Backus photos


FORTRAN was also extremely efficient, 2003628212running as fast as programs painstakingly hand-coded by the programming elite, who worked in arcane machine languages. This was a feat considered impossible before FORTRAN. It was achieved by the masterful design of the  FORTRAN compiler, a program that captures the human intent of a program and recasts it in a way that a computer can process.

In the FORTRAN project, Mr. Backus tackled two fundamental problems in computing — how to make programming easier for humans, and how to structure the underlying code to make that possible. Mr. Backus continued to work on those challenges for much of his career, and he encouraged others as well.

“His contribution was immense, and it influenced the work of many, including me,” Frances Allen, a retired research fellow at I.B.M., said yesterday.

Mr. Backus was a bit of a maverick even as a teenager. He grew up in an affluent family in Wilmington, Del., the son of a stockbroker. He had a complicated, difficult relationship with his family, and he was a wayward student.

In a series of interviews in 2000 and 2001 in San Francisco, where he lived at the time, Mr. Backus recalled that his family had sent him to an exclusive private high school, the Hill School in Pennsylvania.


As projectleader with IBM John Backus developed in the early 1950’s with his team:  FORTRAN– Formula Translator. FORTRAN was released in 1954. The first high level programming language. This language is most widely used in physics and engineering.

He was also responsible for the Backus-Naur Form (or BNF), a standard notation which can be used to decribe the sytanx of a computer language in a formal and unambiguous way.


1942 Graduated from Hill school Potts town

1942 Entered the University of Virginia. Joined the army

1945 Entered Flower and Fifth Avenue Medical School in New York

1949 Worked on IBM’S SSEC computer

1950-1952 Watson Lab

1954 Backus and his team publish Fortran

1959 Developing a notation called Backus-Naur Form in collaboration with Naur

1991 Retirement

Honors and awards

1976 Receives National medal of Science

1977 received the ACM Turing Award Lecture.(2)

1989 Received doctor honoris causa of the Université Henri PoincaréNancy, France, on December 14 1989.(4)

1993 Receives Charles Stark Draper price for his work on Fortran

1998 Fellow Award Recipient of the Computer History Museum for his development of FORTRAN, contributions to computer systems theory and software project management.




  • Backus, John W., “The IBM 701 Speedcoding System”, IBM, New York (10 Sep 1953), 4pp.
  • Backus, John W., “The IBM Speedcoding System”, The Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery, Vol.1 No.1 (Jan 1954), pp.4-6.
  • Backus, John W., and Harlan Herrick, “IBM 701 Speedcoding and Other Automatic Programming Systems”, Symposium on Automatic Programming for Digital Computers, Office of Technical Services, US Dept of Commerce, Washington DC (May 1954), pp.106-113.
  • Specifications for the IBM Mathematical FORmula TRANslating System, FORTRAN, IBM Applied Science Division, New York (10 Nov 1954), 43pp.
  • Amdahl, G.M, and J.W. Backus, The System Design of the IBM Type 704, IBM Engineering Laboratory, Poughkeepsie NY (1955), 11pp.
  • Backus, J.W., et al., The FORTRAN Automatic Coding System, Proceedings of the Western Joint Computing Conference 1957, pp.188-198.
  • Backus, J.W., The Syntax and Semantics of the Proposed International Algebraic Language of Zürich ACM-GAMM Conference, Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Processing, UNESCO, 1959, pp.125-132.
  • J.W. Backus, et al., and P. Naur (ed.), Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language ALGOL 60, CACM, Vol. 6, p. 1; The Computer Journal, Vol. 9, p. 349; Num. Math., Vol. 4, p. 420. (1963)
  • J.W. Backus, “The History of Fortran I, II, and III”, Annals of the History of Computing, Vol.1 No.1 (July-September 1979).