Columbia University Computing History

John Backus

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Left photo: from [9]. The caption reads: "John Backus, leader of the group which developed FORTRAN (1954-57), was an early SSEC programmer." After serving in the US Army in World War II, Backus received his BS in mathematics from Columbia's School of General Studies in 1949 (and, I believe, he also earned a Columbia Masters, year unknown). He worked at IBM Watson Lab at Columbia University from 1950 to 1952, and went on to lead IBM's Programming Research Group, and was honored as an IBM Fellow in 1963. Besides FORTRAN, Backus also developed BNF (Backus Normal Form or Backus Naur Form, an application of Noam Chomsky's generative grammar to formal computer languages), the language that is used to formally describe computer languages, and was principal author of the Algol 60 Revised Report. He retired in 1991. ACM Turing award citation:

For profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.

John Backus died at his home in Ashland, Oregon, March 17, 2007.


In 2004 I had the following correspondence with him, after an introduction:

____________________________
Date: Wed, 31 Mar 2004 12:06:14 EST
From: Frank da Cruz <fdc@columbia.edu>
To: John Backus <jbackus1@xxxxx.xxx>
Subject: Columbia University Computing History

Hi John, it's great to make contact with you. Ever since I came to work in what we still call Watson Lab, you have been the local hero.

I first encountered computing and Fortran in 1965 in the Army, and had arrived at Columbia by 1966 (when IBM was still here, in the very building I'm sitting in right now, but I didn't know it at the time). In those days, Watson Lab was still littered with plugboards, card decks, and little wires. I still have somebody's 1940s Steelcase desk and a pile of EAM manuals (my first "programming" experience was on the 407).

Paul [McJones] pointed out my web thing on Columbia computing history:

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/
which, as I guess you have seen, can be followed through endless links to sub-pages on people, equipment, and events, plus several online books and papers. I started working on this when I discovered I had become (almost) the oldest guy around here, and everybody's favorite source for nostalgia.

Once I started writing, however, I became far more interested in the Eckert and Watson Lab eras than in whatever I remember first-hand. Especially once I started receiving calls and emails from veterans of those years, including Herb Grosch, Eric Hankam, Ellie Krawitz, Ken Schreiner, and Seymour Koenig, all of whom you probably remember (and most reachable by email), as well as many others from the years after you left. Eric still lives in the same apartment, right around the corner. Ellie is at NYU. Herb is at the University of Toronto.

This place has one heck of a history, one that's largely unknown at Columbia, never mind the rest of the world. Coincidentally, Columbia is having its 250th Anniversary this year, and I've become the de facto computer historian for the occasion, slowly but surely getting material into the C250 website:

http://www.columbia.edu/c250/
e.g. Hollerith (and soon Eckert) as "Columbians Ahead of Their Time", as well as into the commemorative volume ("Stand Columbia").

If you look through the computing history pages, you'll see I've tried to identify a fair number of firsts (some of them arguable) that can be claimed by Columbia and/or Watson Lab at Columbia such as the first automated scientific computation, the founding meeting of the ACM, and (this one is in your ballpark) the SSEC, about which there is a school of thought that claims it is the first true von-Neumann architecture computer (in that it was capable of stored-program operation and mixing instructions and data in the same store, even though that was not its normal mode of operation, and even though its internal memory was tiny):

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/ssec.html
Well, I don't want this note to be too long, so I'll break off by saying that I'd be delighted to hear from you and to incorporate (with credit of course) anything you'd like to add, as well as any corrections. I have a very flimsy biographical sketch here:
http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/backus.html
and would love to flesh it out, particularly in any matters relating to Columbia or Watson Lab. (There's a current thread on the Alt.Folklore.Computers newsgroup about where the first Fortran installations were. I'm wondering if you stayed in touch with Watson Lab after you left and sent them early versions for their 650 or NORC.)

Also if you have any recollections of Wallace Eckert, I could add them to his profile:

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/eckert.html
before C250 goes public with it.

Thanks!

- Frank

Frank da Cruz
The Kermit Project
Columbia University
612 West 115th Street
New York NY 10025-7799
USA

____________________________
Date: Sun, 11 Jul 2004 15:00:37 -0400 (EDT)
From: Frank da Cruz <fdc@columbia.edu>
To: "John Backus" <jbackus1@xxxxxxx.xxx>
cc: "Dr. Herbert R.J. Grosch" <hgrosch@xxxxxxx.xxx>
Subject: Columbia Computing History (again)

Hi John, Herb [Grosch] encouraged me to try contacting you again. I don't have a lot to add to my first message, except that I've done a fair amount of excavating since then and, as Herb noted, have some new material on Eckert's time the Naval Obervatory:

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/navalobservatory.html
http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/almanac.html
http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/tableprinter.html

Even though this stuff has little to do with Columbia, beyond the Eckert connection, I find the War years fascinating, probably because both my parents were in the War so I grew up with it. I even have a little library of wartime Air Almanacs on my bookshelf!

I was looking through Backus material on the Web just now and noticed some parallels:

Like you (?) I wound up with an entirely unexpected career in computing and here I am 35 years later. Btw, Eric Hankam had a similar Army experience to yours -- he spent his entire hitch in school! I have his autobiography up here:
http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/hankam.html
Anyway, I'd be very grateful for whatever you might want to contribute by way of memories, corrections, or photos of your time at Columbia, or anything related to it. My little Backus biography:
http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/backus.html
is still quite sketchy, and I'm sure the publication list is FAR from complete (btw, we have a manuscript in our Rare Book library called "An abstract approach to the four color problem and to a theory of maps"; is that yours?)

I guess your main project at Watson Lab was the SSEC. Here's what I have on it:

http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/ssec.html
I conclude with a section called "Was the SSEC the First Stored-Program Computer?" which I'd love to get your comments on. Btw, there is a vast treasure trove of SSEC memorabilia at North Carolina State University:
http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/archives/collections/pdf/brooke_mc268.pdf
but it seems the only way to access it is in person.

Thanks!

- Frank

____________________________
From: "john backus" <jbackus1@xxxxxxx.xxx>
To: "'Frank da Cruz'" <fdc@columbia.edu>
Cc: "'Dr. Herbert R.J. Grosch'" <hgrosch@xxxxxxx.xxx>
Subject: RE: Columbia Computing History (again)
Date: Sun, 11 Jul 2004 14:26:03 -0700

Hello Frank,

I apologize for not responding to your earlier email, but I received it the day my wife died and things have been in a turmoil since then. I'm still very busy working to edit & publish the not-quite-finished book she'd been working on for the last seven years.

I've explored only a little of the vast material you present online, but what I've seen is fascinating. It's truly amazing how you've managed to capture so many little details. I could spend forever following the intriguing links you provide.

It is amazing how our early paths coincided. And it was true when I was there, too, that all anyone seemed to do at UVA was drink themselves silly. I hope you didn't flunk out like I did! My "career" at Columbia was also financed by the GI bill. I was majoring in math.

I spent very little time at Watson Lab. But remember my stint on the SSEC fondly. (although I think it's an extreme stretch to consider it the first "stored program" computer--even though one of the programs I did used some specially prepared storage cells as the source of an instruction after some data was stored in it.) Hope I can be of some help.

There's so much to say, and so little time, it's probably easier if we talk on the phone. What's a good time to call?

-- John

____________________________
Date: Mon, 12 Jul 2004 12:44:27 EDT
From: Frank da Cruz <fdc@columbia.edu>
To: "john backus" <jbackus1@pacbell.net>
Cc: "'Dr. Herbert R.J. Grosch'" <hgrosch@hotmail.com>
Subject: RE: Columbia Computing History (again)

> I apologize for not responding to your earlier email, but I received it the
> day my wife died and things have been in a turmoil since then.
>
That's just about the worst thing I can imagine, I'm so sorry. Next to that, computer nostalgia is inconsequential.

> I'm still
> very busy working to edit & publish the not-quite-finished book she'd been
> working on for the last seven years.
>
That must be hard. Can I ask what it's about?

> I've explored only a little of the vast material you present online, but
> what I've seen is fascinating. It's truly amazing how you've managed to
> capture so many little details. I could spend forever following the
> intriguing links you provide.
>
Thanks, it's a labor of love -- I confess some degree of nostalgia for the days when computers were designed and used by scientists to solve serious problems, compared to today, when they are mainly home entertainment and shopping devices.

What I like best about this work is how it attracts people who were here long ago. The site pops up on a web search, or someone tells them about it, then they write to me, and this is how it grows. Plus I have the pleasure of putting long-lost colleagues back in touch (with their permission, of course!)

> It is amazing how our early paths coincided. And it was true when I was
> there, too, that all anyone seemed to do at UVA was drink themselves silly.
> I hope you didn't flunk out like I did!
>
I saw the writing on the wall and left before that happened -- "you can't fire me, I quit!" :-)

> My "career" at Columbia was also
> financed by the GI bill. I was majoring in math.
>
The GI Bill was a wonderful thing. Without it, I don't know what my parents would have done after the War. I majored in Sociology, of all things, and soon discovered nobody will pay you to save the world, so wound up (after taxi driving and other odd jobs) working in the Columbia Engineering School and Physics Department, where some professors took me under their wing and gave me programming tasks -- in Fortran of course! -- on their early minicomputers, and encouraged me to take graduate courses. Eventually I got a graduate degree on tuition exemption, was hired at the Computer Center, and have worked here ever since, putting both of my kids through Columbia on tuition exemption too, so I can't complain.

> I spent very little time at Watson Lab. But remember my stint on the SSEC
> fondly. (although I think it's an extreme stretch to consider it the first
> "stored program" computer--even though one of the programs I did used some
> specially prepared storage cells as the source of an instruction after some
> data was stored in it.) Hope I can be of some help.
>
Yes, I know it's a stretch :-)

> There's so much to say, and so little time, it's probably easier if we talk
> on the phone. What's a good time to call?
>
Any time between about 9:00am and 1:00pm or 2:00pm and 6:00pm, eastern time, except this Thursday afternoon I'll be at the dentist.

1 xxx xxx-xxxx
Thanks for getting back to me!

- Frank

(I didn't hear from him after that.)


Selected Publications:

References:

Fortran and Algol References:

Links (all good as of 4 September 2012):

Obituary:

Last update: Fri Oct 25 15:51:30 2013


Frank da Cruz / fdc@columbia.edu / Columbia University Computing History