John W. Backus

Today, The New York Times carries an obituary to John W. Backus, of the "Backus | Naur form" notation and the lead of the IBM team who brought us Fortran. Many a scientific computing wizard will today salute Mr. Backus for what he and his team accomplished.

While the need for new programming models was dire in the 1950s, a move by Backus to initiate an applied research program to invent a higher-level language led to a revolution in software. The first Fortran team worked on the language from 1953 to 1957. ("The first written reference to 'software' as a computer term, as something distinct from hardware, did not come until 1958," according to The NYT.)

In my experience with Fortran, I join many others who used this first-generation higher-level language to do useful things, including much scientific research.

I wrote my first toy computer program, which calculated the first 1000 primes, in Fortran. Later on, I wrote Fortran programs to calculate temperature profiles in three dimensional body embedded in a heated environment, to study dispersion and diffusion of particles in turbulent flows, to investigate the dynamics of particle-particle collisions and systems, and to perform direct numerical simulations of fluid flow and vortex-vortex interaction in an infinite body. In short, in the mid 1980s, I spent many hours doing scientific programming in Fortran. (Some of this work got its way into my masters dissertation and other to my Ph.D. dissertation. Much of it remained at the level of pure investigation and study.)

Note: For a modern progeny, see Fortress.

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