Last week, on behalf of the Computer History Museum, I had the opportunity to interview John Backus, who led a team at IBM in the 1950's to produce FORTRAN. Later in his career, John pioneered work in functional programming.
John is now in his 80s, and is still a very energetic and bright man. We met at his home in Ashland, Oregon, where he lives near one of his daughters following his wife's death a little over two years ago. The purpose of our interview was two fold: the Computer History Museum continues to conduct a variety of oral interviews, and the ACM is in the process of interviewing all its Turing Award winners (John received the Turing award in 1977).
Our interview covered a wealth of topics: his recollection of the FORTRAN project, his contributions to ALGOL, his experiences at IBM, his work on functional programming (and why it failed to achieve mainstream success), and his work with many other luminaries of the time. John reported that his FORTRAN work was not well received by IBM senior management at the time (Tom Watson senior in particular) but that Tom Watson junior really got the vision for the future of computing. Much of the FORTRAN work was so groundbreaking that his team had to discover and then solve a multitude of problems along the way. Interestingly, John noted that the assumptions for which FORTRAN was created - to see if one could write efficient programs in a high-order language - are really no longer valid, although the industry is still faced with a "cesspool of complexity," as he put it.
John is still a wired guy: he's got a Palm, a Tivo, and a Dell. Currently, he's working on publishing and distributing a book his wife was working on up until her death.
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