John W. Backus

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John Backus

John Warner Backus (born December 3, 1924 in Philadelphia , † March 17, 2007 in Ashland , Oregon ) was an American computer scientist and one of the pioneers of computer science . He was the head of the development team for Fortran , the first (actually realized) high-level programming language . Together with Peter Naur , he developed the Backus-Naur form named after them , a notation for describing formal languages . He did research in the field of functional programming and helped to spread this programming paradigm further.


John Backus was the son of a German emigrant. His father was a chemist who improved the design of accurate thermometers in Germany . With the measurement technology for the production of nitroglycerin , he became wealthy.


Backus jr. graduated from high school without much enthusiasm, then he studied chemistry at the University of Virginia , which he dropped out and enlisted in the US Army. There he was delegated to study medicine. During an internship in neurosurgery, he was surprisingly found to have a brain tumor, which, however, was successfully removed surgically. First a metal plate was operated on the top of his skull, after nine months of studying medicine he had it replaced with a new plate, having become dissatisfied with it. After moving to New York City, he trained as a radio technician and discovered his interest in mathematics. Backus graduated from Columbia University with a Master's degree in mathematics in 1949 .

Shortly before completing his studies, Backus visited the IBM headquarters on New York's Madison Avenue . After a spontaneous questioning by employees, which he later referred to as the oral exam, he was immediately employed as a programmer from 1950. At that time there were no higher programming languages, programming was done in the assembly language.


Backus was dissatisfied with this state of IT and wanted to make programming easier. In 1953 he received permission from IBM to assemble a team to research advanced programming methods. The result of these efforts was a translator for Fortran published in 1957. Fortran was the first high-level language among the formal languages ​​and thus the first representative of what is commonly understood today as a programming language. For the first time, the language also made it possible for non-specialists in programming to use computers to solve subject-specific problems, and was therefore particularly interesting for scientists and engineers.

In 1959 Backus presented the original form of the Backus-Naur-Form, a metalanguage for the representation of context-free grammars . Backus wanted to formally describe the programming language Algol 58, which had recently appeared . In the same year, Peter Naur , head of the Algol 60 project group, modified the metalanguage, which is why it now bears the names of both developers.

Backus received the Turing Award in 1977 for his contributions to the design of high-level languages, in particular for his work on Fortran and the Backus-Naur form. In a memorable talk entitled Can Programming Be Liberated from the von Neumann Style? A Functional Style and Its Algebra of Programs on the occasion of the presentation of the Turing Awards, Backus recommended turning to the paradigm of functional programming. Again, the goal was to make the programmer's daily work easier, this time by turning to a programming style that was based on mathematical functions instead of the imperative programming that had prevailed until then . With FP and FL he developed the appropriate functional programming languages ​​himself.

Private life

John Backus withdrew completely from the world of computer science in 1991 and devoted himself intensively to the religious teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Eva Pierrakos.

A first marriage to Marjorie Jamison was divorced. He leaves behind his daughters Karen and Paula Backus and his brother Cecil Backus, his second wife Barbara Stannard died in 2004.


“Most scientists are scientists because they are afraid of life. It's wonderful to be inventive in science in a setting where you don't have to mess with people and suffer from relationships. It's wonderful out there in the aseptic world where there is no pain. But at some point you have to look inside yourself and defeat fear. There are no programs for this and no particularly good theories. "

- John W. Backus



Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ John Backus: Can Programming Be Liberated from the von Neumann Style? A Functional Style and Its Algebra of Programs. In: Communications of the ACM. Vol. 21, No. 8, August 1978, pp. 613–641 ( online , PDF, 3.0 MB)
  2. Detlef Borchers: Conquering the fear of life. For the 80th birthday of John Backus . In: heise online . December 3, 2004
  3. IBM Archives: IBM Builders reference room: John Backus