Software pioneer John W. Backus, who died last Saturday, had several of the characteristics of a typical experimental innovator, but some signs of conceptual innovation too.
His most noted achievement, leading the I.B.M. team that created Fortran, came at age 32 — at a relatively old age for a software innovator.
That’s typical of experimental innovators, who often achieved their greatest successes by making gradual improvements rather than by a sudden conceptual breakthrough. As his obituary in the New York Times states:
“It was Mr. Backus who set the tone for the Fortran team. Yet if the style was informal, the work was intense, a four-year venture with no guarantee of success and many small setbacks along the way.
“Innovation, Mr. Backus said, was a constant process of trial and error.
“ ‘You need the willingness to fail all the time,’ he said. ‘You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.’ “
Backus also took a while to settle into a career. According to the History of Computing Project, he studied chemistry, was expelled from the University of Virginia, pursued premed studies, enrolled in a radio technician’s school, then pursued a master’s degree in math before joining IBM at age 24. That’s typical of many experimental innovators. (Think of poet Robert Frost, who had been a school teacher, chicken farmer, and newspaper reporter before making his way in the world of poetry.)
However, an obituary in “BetaNews” describes Backus’ achievement in conceptual terms, calling him, “The man who for all practical purposes invented the modern concept of the interpreted programming language, and who gave us the first principles upon which the software industry was formed.” It states:
“Backus was an intellectual – a gifted thinker, but by no means a mathematician. In another age, without access to a computer – even one that filled the basement of a large building – he might have been a philosopher. Among his library at the time were the works of the modern philosopher and theorist Noam Chomsky, who studied the evolution of the human intellect and of written and spoken language in parallel. Chomsky was developing a symbolic syntax with which to frame his concepts of languages within languages, in the study of how sociology affects grammar. Backus borrowed some of Chomsky’s concepts, including the idea that a symbology could represent a computer language…even one that didn’t yet exist.
“It was a concept three or four steps ahead of his time, way out of sequence, and which triggered a fast-forward process in the evolution of computer science that has since never been duplicated: the concept of a pattern representing an algebraic procedure that could not only be reconstituted into one computer’s machine language, but also into another computer’s machine language using a different process. …
“Nothing about the framework he produced in the early 1950s, and to which he devoted the remainder of his career, is outmoded or antiquated. Indeed, that was his intent: to find something timeless in the practice of computing. He was successful in this goal at a very young age, and for the latter half of his life, he took pride in that accomplishment.”