From its creation in 1954, and its commercial release in 1957 as the progenitor of software, Fortran (FORMula TRANslator) became the first computer language standard, “helped open the door to modern computing,” and may well be the most influential software product in history. Fortran liberated computers from the exclusive realm of programmers and opened them to nearly everybody else. It is still in use more than 50 years after its creation.
For the first time, Fortran made code comprehensible to people with expertise in fields other than computing, opening programming to mathematicians and scientists. Someone who knew high school algebra but nothing about computers could probably figure out Fortran statements. Fortran began the process of abstracting software from the hardware on which it ran. Previous machine language programs had to be written for a specific computer, while a Fortran program could run on any system with a Fortran compiler.
What was formerly a laborious task of manually keying as many as 1,000 program instructions for a given problem could now be translated, automated and reduced to only 47 in Fortran.
The developer of the UNIX ® operating system (Ken Thompson at Bell Labs in 1969) recalls that “95 percent of the people who programmed in the early years would never have done it without Fortran.” The program is, in essence, a compiler: A programmer using Fortran writes only 5 percent of all instructions, and the program generates (compiles) the remaining 95 percent for the computer.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, John Backus, the primary author of Fortran, assembled and guided a team of young men and women of diverse talents toward making computers more useful for their primary users—scientists and mathematicians. His process of aligning and integrating seemingly disparate talents and disciplines toward a specific goal—problem solving— was unprecedented. The team included engineers, a cryptographer, a chess wizard, programmers and mathematicians like Backus. “We were the hackers of those days,” team member Richard Goldberg recalled.
Backus understood that engineers needed a language to code their own problems. He chafed at what he considered “hand-to-hand combat” with the computer and its highly labor-intensive programming. Even though he was a programmer—a newly minted title even he didn’t understand at the time—Backus said he “didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 (an early computer), writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.” It would be called “Speedcoding.”
“We thought it was a good project, and then everyone told us it couldn’t be done,” Backus recalled. “There was a sense that we really wanted to show them.”
Fortran was developed over three years, culminating in a debut presentation in February 1957 at the Western Joint Computer Conference in Los Angeles. In the Proceedings of that conference, the team’s presentation paper concluded succinctly, “The language of the system is intended to be capable of expressing virtually any numerical procedure.”
“It was ‘the turning point’ in computer software, much as the microprocessor was a giant step forward in hardware, according to J.A.N. Lee, a leading computer historian,” as reported in the New York Times.
“What Fortran did primarily was to mechanize the organization of loops,” said Backus. A loop, heavily used in scientific work and in computing payrolls, is a series of instructions repeated a number of times until a specific result is reached. As Backus wrote in a scientific paper in 1979, his team “went on to raise the question: ‘Can a machine translate a sufficiently rich mathematical language into a sufficiently economical program at a sufficiently low cost to make the whole affair feasible?’”
Management in many industries quickly realized the significance of Fortran for its ability to improve productivity by reducing the time and effort to write specific code applications. Banks began to use Fortran to build intensive number-crunching programs to assess risk, while insurance companies used it to create actuarial tables. And because other computer vendors made it available to run on their machines, using IBM’s standard, Fortran could cross operating platforms early in its history and established its durability.
In 1975, Backus was awarded the National Medal of Science. He was the first IBMer to receive this award. Two years later, he was awarded the equally prestigious Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. Backus was also awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize by the National Academy of Engineering, the industry’s most esteemed prize.