For example, I had never heard before of John Backus, until I read his obituary in this week's Nature (subscription required). He was the creator of FORTRAN, the first higher programming language. He passed away on March 17, 2007, at the age of 82. There have been several obituaries published before, i.e. in New York Times, the
The Sydney Morning Herald, or the Guardian.
Backus tried, quite unsuccessfully, to become a chemical engineer and a medical doctor, before he found his vocation in mathematics. Around the time he was finishing his a Master's degree from Columbia University, he visited a showroom exhibition of IBM, where the company presented its latest computers. He talked to some of the representatives there, and at the end of the day, he had a job at IBM.
At that time, in the early 1950s, IBM had started to build and sell computers in series. While hardware thus was more easily available - at least for big universities and companies, or governmental institutions - the problem of programming these computers became critical. Programs had to be written in machine code, in the series of zeros and ones the computer could understand, and this was a tedious and error-prone task, which required much training and could done only by experts.
The IBM 704 computer room at Lawrence Livermore, October 1956. The FORTRAN compiler was developed by John Backus to write programs for this computer. (Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Historical Computer Photos
So, Backus had the idea to develop a program that would be able to translate some formal description of an algorithm into the right series of zeros and ones, the machine code the computer would operate with. This was how FORTRAN; the FORmula TRANslator, came into being. The FORTRAN compiler was released for general use with the IBM 704 computer just 50 years ago, in April 1957.
The title page of the IBM 704 Fortran Manual with an autograph by John Backus himself and the names of the people who worked on the first Fortran compiler. (Source: www.fortran.com)
By some curious coincidence, I never actually used FORTRAN for scientific computing. I had landed on an island of C/C++, while everyone else around me was constantly relying on FORTRAN for running simulations or coding small programs to find a quick numerical solution to some mathematical problem. I only realised that it had some funny formal features, for example with respect to the line length, which made me some headaches when I once tried to write a small program in FORTRAN. But once you realise that, actually, this compiler is a reliable tool back from the stone age of electronic computing, you probably can be tolerant with such idiosyncracies.
More about Backus can be found in the IBM Archives.
Here is an iteresting text about The history of the FORTRAN programming language.
Tags: John Backus, FORTRAN