- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

John Backus, whose development of the Fortran programming language in the 1950s changed how people interacted with computers and paved the way for modern software, died March 17 in Ashland, Ore. He was 82.

Mr. Backus spent his entire career with IBM Corp.

Before Fortran, computers had to be meticulously “hand-coded” — programmed in the raw strings of digits that triggered actions inside the machine. Fortran let programmers enter commands in a more intuitive system, which the computer would translate into machine code on its own.

The breakthrough earned Mr. Backus the 1977 Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, one of the industry’s highest accolades. The citation praised his “profound, influential and lasting contributions.”

Mr. Backus also won a National Medal of Science in 1975 and the 1993 Charles Stark Draper Prize, the top honor from the National Academy of Engineering.

“Much of my work has come from being lazy,” Mr. Backus told Think, the IBM employee magazine, in 1979. “I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701 [an early computer], writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

John Warner Backus was born in Wilmington, Del., in 1924. He had what he would later describe as a “checkered educational career” in prep school and the University of Virginia, which he left after six months. After being drafted into the Army, he studied medicine but dropped it when he found radio engineering more compelling.

Mr. Backus finally found his calling in math, and he pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York. Shortly before graduating, Mr. Backus toured the IBM offices in midtown Manhattan and came across the company’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, an early computer stuffed with 13,000 vacuum tubes. He met one of the machine’s inventors, Rex Seeber — who “gave me a little homemade test and hired me on the spot,” he said in 1979.

Mr. Backus’ early work at IBM included computing lunar positions on the balky, bulky computers that were state of the art in the 1950s. But he tired of hand-coding the hardware, and in 1954 he got his bosses to let him assemble a team that could design an easier system.

The result was Fortran, short for Formula Translation, that reduced the number of programming statements necessary to operate a machine by a factor of 20.

It showed skeptics that machines could run just as efficiently without hand-coding. A wide range of programming languages and software approaches proliferated, although Fortran also evolved over the years and remains in use.

Mr. Backus remained with IBM until his retirement in 1991. Among his other important contributions was a method for describing the particular grammar of computer languages. The system is known as Backus-Naur Form.

Charles Harrelson, 69, actor’s father; killer

DENVER (AP) — Charles Harrelson, the father of actor Woody Harrelson, died last week of a heart attack in the Supermax federal prison where he was serving two life sentences for the murder of a federal judge, officials said yesterday.

Harrelson, 69, was found unresponsive in his cell on the morning of March 15, said Felicia Ponce, a Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman.

Fremont County Coroner Dorothy Twellman said an autopsy showed Harrelson had severe coronary artery disease. She said he probably died in his sleep. “It appears it was very sudden,” she said.

Harrelson was convicted of murder in the May 29, 1979, slaying of U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr. outside his San Antonio home. Prosecutors said a drug dealer hired him to kill Judge Wood because he did not want the judge to preside at his upcoming trial.

Harrelson denied the killing, saying he was in Dallas, 270 miles away, at the time.

Judge Wood, known as “Maximum John” for the sentences he gave in drug cases, was the first federal judge to be killed in the 20th century.

Harrelson was transferred to Supermax, the highest-security federal prison, after attempting to break out of an Atlanta federal prison in 1995. Other inmates at Supermax, about 90 miles south of Denver, include Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

His son got his start in acting as Woody the bartender on “Cheers” beginning in 1985 and went on to star in films including “Natural Born Killers,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

The actor was just 7 when his father was first sent to prison, for murdering a Texas businessman. He was in college when his father was convicted of the judge’s assassination.

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