John Backus and the development of high-level computer programming languages

Today we’re celebrating the birthday of John Backus (3 Dec 1924 – 28 Oct 1988), American computer scientist and the leader of the team who invented the Fortran programming language (at the time called FORTRAN) while working at IBM in the mid 1950s.

Fortran was the first so-called ‘high-level computer language’, which means it was capable of converting standard mathematical formulas and English-based expressions into binary code used by computers. The language is particularly suited to scientific computing and numeric computation. Over the years, many improvements were made to the original Fortran language, with versions known by a sometimes strange series of numeric identifiers – FORTRAN, FORTRAN II, FORTRAN III, FORTRAN IV, FORTRAN 66, FORTRAN 77, Fortran 90, Fortran 2003 and Fortran 2008.

FORTRAN was the first widely used high-level computer language, providing an interface between equations and expressions understandable to humans,  and binary code used by computers.(© All Rights Reserved)
FORTRAN was the first widely used high-level computer language, providing an interface between equations and expressions understandable to humans, and binary code used by computers.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Despite being one of the oldest computer languages, it has been one of the most enduring, and after more than half a century it is still a preferred language for computationally intensive applications such as weather prediction, computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis. One of the reasons for Fortran’s longevity is that some of the later Fortran compilers in particular are capable of generating very fast and efficient code, which can make a big difference when solving large, complex mathematical computations. It is still the primary language for used on many supercomputers, and many of the floating-point benchmarks to test the performance of new processors are still written in Fortran.

As a high-level language, Fortran has also provided an impetus for the development of numerous subsequent computer languages such as ALGOL, COBOL and BASIC.

The IEEE awarded John Backus the W.W. McDowell Award in 1967 for the development of FORTRAN. He also received the National Medal of Science in 1975 and the ACM Turing Award in 1977 for his contributions to the design of high-level computer programming systems.

The birth of Linux, giant killer of the Open Source world

A while ago, I published a post on the start of the open source operating system revolution. As mentioned there, Linus Torvalds did not ‘invent’ the open source operating system with Linux, but there’s no denying that he is one of the true superstars of the open source world, and that Linux is, without a doubt, one of the few open source operating systems that have managed to make the big commercial players sit up and take notice.

From cellphones to supercomputers – Linux is a popular operating system across a wide range of platforms.
(© All Rights Reserved)

There is some debate around the date that should be considered the ‘official’ birthday of Linux – there are three early emails from Torvalds making reference to his operating system – but the general consensus seems to be that his email of 25 August 1991 best represents Linux’s inception:

From:torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroup: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: 1991Aug25, 20578.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki.

Hello everybody out there using minix-

I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix; as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-sytem due to practical reasons) among other things.

I’ve currently ported bash (1.08) an gcc (1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that i’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them 🙂

Linus Torvalds torvalds@kruuna.helsinki.fi

Originally developed for Intel x86 personal computers, the Linux operating system has since been ported to a wider range of platforms than any other operating system, ranging from servers to supercomputers to embedded systems. The Android operating system, used by a wide range of mobile devices, is built on a Linux kernel. Quite amazing for a system that it’s creator described as “just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu”.

The Linux story really is a feel-good tale of how a non-commercial product, based on a free and open community-based development model, can match and exceed its multi-million dollar commercial competition.

Happy birthday, Linux, and power to you, Linus Torvalds – may you long continue to steer the ship, and take others along on your quest for the open and the free.

Celebrating the birth of Alan Turing, father of modern computer science

This year is the centennial celebration of the birth of Alan Turing, giant in the fields of computing, artificial intelligence and cryptoanalysis.

Turing was a man very much ahead of his time, both intellectually and socially. A brilliant logical mind, Turing played a pioneering role in the development of the field of computer science through his description of a hypothetical machine called the “Turing machine”, which has become the blueprint of the modern computer.

He also played a key role in the success of the Allied Forces in World War II, through his contribution to cracking the German Enigma code. He designed and helped build a code breaking machine known as the “Bombe”, which represented a huge leap forward in the field of cryptoanalysis.

After the war, Turing made further contributions to the field of computer science and created the ‘Turing Test’, which tests the ‘thinking ability’ of a computer, thus laying the foundation for the field of artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing, computer science giant and tragic gay hero.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Sadly, as mentioned, Turing was also out of time at a social level – being gay in an era when homosexuality was still a criminal offense. An incident with his boyfriend led to Turing being arrested for ‘gross indecency’. To avoid prison, he agreed to “chemical castration” through estrogen therapy. As a result of his arrest, Turing’s military clearance was also revoked and he was unable to do further work for the British government, severely stunting his further academic contributions.

Two years after his conviction, Turing committed suidice by eating an apple poisoned with cyanide, a sad reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which apparently was one of his favourite films.

Turing received a posthumous apology from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, where his contribution, and the social injustice he was subjected to, was finally publicly acknowledged.

One can but wonder how much more the brilliant Turing may have contributed, had he been afforded more time.