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“This Guy’s Arrogance Takes Your Breath Away”

Edsger Dijkstra.

John Backus led the IBM group that created the first Fortran compiler. Edsger Dijkstra (above) had a strong impact on public understanding of program structure.

Credit: IBM

I was in Washington, DC over Memorial Day weekend, consulting the Library of Congress for a paper I'm writing about the early history of programming languages. The LoC houses the John W Backus papers, a collection of 12 boxes. As you may recall, Backus helped invent FORTRAN, ALGOL, Backus-Naur form, and a few other things that computer scientists might be aware of.

The Backus papers are a collection of 211 items. "Papers" are a slight misnomer—one of the items is a book of proceedings papers, and another is a balloon celebrating the 25th anniversary of FORTRAN. The library's catalogue entry states simply that

This collection is arranged in numerical order according to a system prepared by Backus.

What I was not prepared for was that the cataloguing system also came with Backus's own running commentary.


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