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Icons of Progress


The Pioneering Programming Language

No product, idea, or achievement is possible without our most critical asset—the collective thought capital of hundreds of thousands of IBMers. The expertise, technical skill, willingness to take risk and overall dedication of IBM employees have led to countless transformative innovations through the years. Meet team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress.

  • John Backus 

    John Backus

    Considered Fortran’s author, John Backus received numerous prestigious awards for his work: the National Medal of Science in 1975—he was the first IBM employee to win this award—the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, and the 1993 National Academy of Engineering’s Charles Stark Draper Prize. He was only 29 years old when Fortran debuted. While a graduate student in mathematics at Columbia University, Backus wandered into IBM headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York, where one of its room-size electronic calculators was on display. When a tour guide inquired, Backus said he was a graduate student in math; he was immediately whisked upstairs and asked a series of questions in an informal oral exam of “brain teasers.” He was hired immediately “as a programmer,” even though Backus said he “did not know what that meant.”

  • Sheldon F. Best 

    Sheldon Best

    An inventive programmer on loan to IBM from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sheldon Best was “devising some very beautiful but complex methods for optimizing the use of index registers,” according to John Backus.

  • Richard Goldberg 

    Richard Goldberg

    Richard Goldberg joined IBM in 1955 after working in applied mathematics at New York University, where he earned his PhD. Prior to his work at IBM, “I didn’t know anything about computing,” he once recalled.

  • Lois Haibt 

    Lois Haibt

    Lois Haibt recalls being “good in math and science and terrible in the fuzzy subjects like English,” while a scholarship student at Vassar College. Shortly after she graduated in 1955, IBM hired her and she was quickly assigned to the Fortran team. Like many of her fellow project team members who came from disparate backgrounds, she was selected due to her success in and passion for math and science, and for her keen problem-solving skills. In an interview in 2001, “They told me it was a job programming computers. 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.” She is credited with building the arithmetic expression analyzer, the core of the Fortran compiler.

  • Harlan Herrick 

    Harlan Herrick

    Harlan Herrick ran the first successful Fortran program, inventing the “DO” statement and the “GO TO” keywords. He joined IBM in 1948 after teaching mathematics for eight years at Yale University.

  • Cuthbert Herd 

    Cuthbert Herd

    Before joining IBM as director of the Applied Science Department in 1949, Dr. Cuthbert Hurd was a mathematician at the Atomic Energy Commission laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. As John Backus’s manager, Dr. Hurd recommended that IBM design and build a general purpose computer so as to own the patents. He gave Backus approval to start a project to simplify programming for the company’s computers.

  • Roy Nutt 

    Roy Nutt

    One of two non-IBM members of the Fortran team, Roy Nutt, on loan from United Aircraft Corporation, was one of the first systems analysts. Nutt was considered an extraordinary programmer who could execute a program in his head, as a machine would, and then write error-free code with remarkable frequency. According to Backus, Nutt “was responsible for the whole input-output system in Fortran.” He later founded the Computer Sciences Corporation.

  • Frances Allen 

    Frances Allen

    Frances Allen was a pioneer in compiler organization and optimization algorithms, and today her work on inter-procedural analysis and automatic parallelization continue to be on the leading edge of compiler research. The technology she worked on can be found in IBM products such as the STRETCH HARVEST Compiler, the COBOL Compiler, and the Parallel Fortran Product. Over 40 years ago, Allen was a math teacher looking to pay off college debt with a job at IBM. Following completion of her master’s degree in Math at the University of Michigan in 1957, Allen joined the IBM Research division to teach Fortran to other researchers. “At the time, Fortran was revolutionary and a very exciting breakthrough in computing,” she says. She continues her work today at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, New York. According to Allen, The convergence of computing, communications, and digitization of information is letting us create new solutions in new ways. Computer languages and their compilers are a key to making this work.” In 1989, Allen became the first female IBM Fellow Emeritus. And then in 2006, became the first IBM Fellow to win the prestigious Alan M. Turing award, given by the Association for Computing Machinery in New York City. When she’s not exploring new computing opportunities, Allen’s passions are mountain climbing and studying environmental issues.

  • Robert Nelson 

    Robert Nelson

    Robert Nelson was a former cryptographer for the US State Department in Vienna, hired by IBM to do the routine work of typing scientific documents. But he was soon recognized for his technical talents. “He quickly became an outstanding programmer, absolutely crucial to the Fortran project,” team member Irving Ziller recalled.

  • David Sayre 

    David Sayre

    Trained as a crystallographer, Dr. David Sayre took on the crucial job of writing the Fortran manual and coordinating instructions for operating the software. He came to IBM in 1955 from the Johnson Research Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania as a senior mathematician. He completed his PhD in X-ray Physics at Oxford University, after undergraduate studies at Yale University. He is currently adjunct professor of x-ray optics and microscopy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

  • Peter Sheridan 

    Peter Sheridan

    Along with Harlan Herrick, Peter Sheridan wrote the first section of Fortran, which produced optimized coding of algebraic expressions. According to Backus, they not only wrote a section of the compiler but actually “invented it—they developed all the groundbreaking techniques used in it.”

  • Irving Ziller 

    Irving Ziller

    The first person to join Backus’s team, Irving Ziller started at IBM in 1952 after graduating from Brooklyn College. Ziller, along with Robert Nelson, designed the methods used to handle subscripts, arrays and loops that make up section two of Fortran.