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Re: I. M. John W. Backus

From: Tony D <>
Date: 21 Mar 2007 20:28:53 -0700
Message-ID: <>

On Mar 21, 11:57 pm, Bob Badour <> wrote:
> It's odd that the obit got things so wrong. Fortran is a monstrosity --
> one of those abominable things that was just good enough.

I seem to remember a quote-oid from Backus along the lines of, "we didn't realise we were designing a language - we were building a compiler", but I can't remember the exact attribution now.

> It's greatest achievement was to show how not to write a compiler.

I disagree - its greatest achievement was to prove to a lot of people that compilers were *possible*. That there was a, to modern eyes, unacceptable "bleed" of machine features of the 704 into Fortran's design was a consequence of trying to prove the point. Unfortunately, the proof of concept was treated as the state of the art by too many others for far too long. Hmm, that sounds familiar from somewhere ...

> Backus more than redeemed himself a few years later by learning
> from fortran how to write a compiler when he and Peter Naur came
> up with BNF.

Hrmmmr... BNF came about because Backus and Naur both thought they understood a section of one of the original reports on the IAL perfectly, but it turned out they had different ideas about what it meant. Backus presented Backus "Normal" Form, and he and Naur worked on it more to come up with Backus Naur Form.

For me, Backus' real crowning achievement was his 1977 Turing Award paper on FP, here -

> Fortran should be a side-note to BNF and not vice versa.
> (BNF is a very big contribution--more than enough to share.)

I find myself fairly forgiving of Fortran, because of its "originating" status. Was it better than Speedcode or similar systems ? Maybe, maybe not - but (much like SQL later) because it came from IBM it got traction and proved an important point. (I'm less forgiving of C because by that time *they should have known better*.)

These days, BNF seems kind of trivial, and compiler usage is taken as a given for the vast majority of cases. It's kind of hard to imagine things before either of those cases, but that's where Backus was working, and his contributions are immense. And to go from essentially bare metal on to FP ... Received on Wed Mar 21 2007 - 22:28:53 CDT

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