John Backus RIP

(Originally posted 2007-03-20.)

I guess I must be part of the “ungrateful peasant” generation of computer geeks…

I never really liked FORTRAN. And now John Backus who led the team that developed it is dead.

For me the elegance of other languages biased my view – but that’s to miss the point: FORTRAN preceded them. And with all such pioneers elegance of form is often lacking.

I did have some practical acquaintance with FORTRAN: In 1984, when doing my final year Physics project I used it to do the “heavy lifting” (and an Acorn Atom to do the graphical lightweight display stuff). UCL at that time had a licence for the NAG set of mathematical libraries. As my project involved numerical integrations to solve Schrödinger’s Equation (in only 1 dimension) I turned to the NAG libraries. To use them I had to use FORTRAN. My practical experience of programming at that time had, to be fair, consisted of a mixture of Z80 Assembler, BASIC, and a home-grown programming language at “gap year” employer. So I think I had a reasonable view.

And that view, whether reasonable or not, was that FORTRAN was frustratingly restrictive, even by the standards of Assembly languages. But you could get much more done with FORTRAN than with Assembler more quickly. I expect one could’ve called the NAG routines from Assembler – but that would’ve been even more work.

So, I think FORTRAN gets a lot of stick. But it’s reasonable to suppose that all the other more elegant languages depended on the pioneer step that was FORTRAN.

Now, does anyone remember using FORTRAN (or even Assembler) on the 3090 Vector Facility? I think maybe 1 or 2 IBM customers in the UK did – but they weren’t in my “social circle” of customers I called on. The legacy today of the Vector Facility is a very large number of reserved opcodes, though I suspect we’re starting to use those now for other things. Does anyone know?

Published by Martin Packer


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