Backus, John Warner, 1924–2007, American computer scientist, b. Philadelphia, Pa., grad. Columbia (M.A. 1950). Trained as a mathematician, he was hired (1950) by IBM Corp. as a computer programmer. From 1954 to 1957 he lead a team that developed FORTRAN [for FOR mula TRAN slation], the first successful high-level programming language; it was designed for engineering and scientific applications. Fortran greatly eased computer programming by replacing the binary digits of machine language with algebraic symbols and English shorthand; a compiler converted the program into machine language. He retired from IBM in 1991. Backus also developed (1959) a system of notation for describing the syntax of high-level programming languages and was an advocate of functional programming, in which the emphasis is placed on describing a problem rather than specifying the steps required to solve it.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.