John Backus
John Backus Draper Prize
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  • Draper
Awards
Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering
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Biography

There have been very few people who can claim to have developed a technology that created a new language, spawned a $23 billion U.S. industry, and started a worldwide technical and cultural revolution. One who can was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering.

Backus was named the recipient of the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize for his development of FORTRAN--FORmula TRANslation--the first general-purpose, high-level computer programming language. Such languages have made possible today's astounding computer applications--running telephone networks, processing medical data, and training pilots on advanced flight simulators.

The $375,000 Draper Prize was established by the NAE in 1988 to recognize individuals whose outstanding engineering achievements have contributed to the well-being and freedom of all humanity. The biennial Draper Prize honors particularly those rare individuals who were able to take an idea, develop it, and put it into practice.

Today, air traffic control systems, satellites, video games, and thousands of business applications are fully integrated with computer technology. These diverse applications would not be possible if not for the development of high-level computer languages, which made computer technology universally available.

"Before John Backus, only a handful of specialists could use the computer," said former NAE President Robert M. White. "Today, everyone from preschoolers to postgraduates can use the computer."

High-level computer languages now form the base of a U.S.-dominated, $23 billion software industry--which now employs over 400,000 people in the United States and is the nation's third-fastest growing technology industry. Such languages also enable countless people to write computer programs for their own business, educational, and at-home use.

Backus developed FORTRAN in the early 1950s to take advantage of the lightning speed of computers. A computer's "brain" is fast, but not too smart. It can think only in numbers, and even then only in the 1s and 0s of binary "machine language." Before FORTRAN, telling a computer what to do involved talking to it in its own language by breaking problems down into seemingly endless strings of digits. Depending on the type of problem, it could take longer to program the computer than to do the problem by hand.

Presented with this enigma, Backus set to work on engineering a compiler, a device that would serve as a translator between the computer and its user. At the time, many believed that the compiler program would drastically slow the computer and produce a machine language less efficient than doing problems by hand. Backus, however, was able to see beyond these problems and envision a way to make the computer operate faster than ever before. After three years of work, FORTRAN was solving problems and performing calculations in ways never before thought possible.

High-level languages, paradoxically, are actually easier and more user-friendly than their name implies--high-level meaning a step away from, or above, the machine's binary language. They use a combination of words and math symbols for commands, rather than obscure binary code. This makes FORTRAN easy to learn and use. Each step of the computer program can be described in readable syntax rather than in specialized mathematical notation. FORTRAN also allows the same program to run on various machines, in effect fusing the individual computer dialects into one understandable and universal language.

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Awards
  • Draper
  • 1993
  • Development of FORTRAN, the first widely used, general purpose, high-level computer language.