John W. Backus

Has died at the age of 82. Backus was the force behind the first high-level computer programming language, FORTRAN.

It was the first programming language I learned. And like the first of anything, it had some very peculiar bits—elements of a statement had to appear in specific columns. FORTRAN did not require blanks between parts of a statement: DO 10 I=1,10 was identical to DO10I=1,10.

Just as important, perhaps, for later developments in programming languages, John Backus worked with the Danish computer scientist Peter Naur to develop BNF, Backus Naur Form. BNF is still the standard way of writing programming language grammars. ALGOL was the first language fully represented by a BNF grammar. BNF grammars are now standard and are used to automatically generate parts of programming language translators.

RIP, John Backus. You changed my life forever.


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