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Priest Against Priesthoodfather of FORTRAN on programming in the fifties

John Backus, director of the FORTRAN team, co-inventor of Backus-Naur Form, and numerous computing award winner:

Just as Westerners and other frontier types developed a rather chauvinistic pride in their frontiersmanship, and a corresponding kind of conservatism that went with it, so many pioneering programmers in the fifties began to regard themselves as members of a priesthood, guarding skills and mysteries that were far too complex for ordinary people. This feeling was really—I mean, it sounds silly to say that now, but it’s really true. The feeling was noted in an article in fact at that same ONR symposium, in which…Brown and Carr…quoting them:

Many professional machine users strongly oppose the use of decimal numbers. To this group, the process of machine instruction was one that could not be turned over to the uninitiated.

And that attitude really cooled very much the impetus for sophisticated programming aids. Because the priesthood wanted, and they got, simple mechanical aids to help them with their drudgery, but they regarded plans for more ambitious systems really with a considerable hostility and derision if the purpose of that system was to make programming available to a larger population. Because they felt, with some justice, that it was a rather arrogant enterprise to think that a mechanical process could do all the mysterious, inventive things they did to produce an efficient program. So they were really opposed to those few mad revolutionaries that wanted to make programming easy enough so that everyone could do it.

— John Backus, “Programming in America in the 1950s”, International Research Conference on the History of Computing at Los Alamos, 1976, at 34:33, available via YouTube or Computer History Museum

Computer people will enjoy the brief talk in full. I was struck not by any historical particular or any quotable quip, but by a personal sense of Backus’ gentleness and humility.

Once cognizant of time pressure, John spent his few remaining minutes bragging on those he managed, who he did not feel got sufficient recognition. He even takes time to name and thank an MIT professor who agreed to lend one of them on leave. Given a question setting him up as pioneer of language standardization, in addition to everything else, he demurs.

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