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Backus helped open door to the information age

The man who taught machines to talk, John Backus, was a quiet man who spent the last years of his life in a cottage behind his daughter's Ashland home, walking her small dog Dinah every day on the hillside trails, listening to an immense library of baroque music and getting to know his adult children and granddaughter better.

Few knew that Backus in 1957 led an IBM team that invented Fortran, the first readily accessible language that allowed scientists to program and use computers, essentially opening the information age and leading to the personal computer within a quarter-century.

Backus, 82, died Saturday at his home. His family said he'd taken his own life but did not elaborate.

"I didn't really get what he'd done until he got the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 1994," said daughter Karen Backus of New York. "He's basically credited with founding the software industry, which created jobs for millions of people."

The Draper prize is awarded every other year by the president of the United States for accomplishments such as jet propulsion and the semiconductor. Never one to take credit, Backus flew his co-workers to Washington to share in the honors and the $375,000 prize money, his daughter said.

According to writings by computer historian J.A.N. Lee of Virginia Tech, Fortran was the turning point in software, as the microprocessor was the turning point in hardware.

"Fortran changed the terms of communication between humans and computers, moving up a level to a language that was more comprehensible by humans. So Fortran, in computing vernacular, is considered the first successful higher-level language," Steve Lohr wrote in an obituary for the New York Times.

Lohr wrote a book on the breakthrough events called "The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Scientists and Iconoclasts who were the Hero Programmers of the Software Revolution."

Backus moved to Ashland from San Francisco in November 2004 after his wife of 35 years died, saying he wanted to deepen his relationships with daughter Paula Backus and granddaughter Ally, 17, who has an A average at Ashland High School and appears to have inherited the math gene, her mother said.

Backus had divorced the mother of his daughters in 1966, when they were 9 and 10, and "he poured his life into Fortran," said Paula Backus. He was made a fellow at IBM, meaning he was paid to pursue the research of his choice. His daughters saw him mainly on weekends and vacations.

"It was easier to do that (his work) than to create relationships. We weren't that close," said Paula Backus. "But the main reason he moved here was to get to know us."

Karen Backus explained that her father had "a hard childhood, a tough family and he escaped into the logical world of mathematics. It was a complex, difficult past and he had to escape and sort it out."

"The beauty of the escape is that it gave us Fortran," Paula Backus said.

The daughters tell the story of an undisciplined John Backus getting thrown out of University of Virginia in his younger years and his seemingly random entry into IBM in 1950. He walked off a New York street into an IBM office, looked over an early mainframe computer, excelled at a few tests and got hired on the spot to his lifelong career.

Their father always said his big discovery happened because he was lazy, had "gotten tired of doing hand-to-hand combat with machines" and wanted to invent a simple computer language just to make his job a little easier, the daughters said.

Oddly, Backus was always stumped just trying to calculate a tip in a restaurant and had tried, unsuccessfully, to work out a formula, said Karen Backus, a real estate broker. When she was failing trigonometry, her father told her not to worry, as "trig is the (armpit) of mathematics." She took a course in Fortran at age 23 and "I was appalled, it was so complicated."

Paula Backus went a different course from her father, becoming a veterinarian and working with children in the Wings personal development trainings, headquartered in Eugene. At 80, her father took the courses and "he said it was some of the high points of his life after his wife's death and he made many friends."

One of them, Tom Harrington of Ashland, noted his "playful, irreverent side," combined with a self-effacing nature "that never let on what he'd done in life — only when you dragged it out of him."

Backus, he added, wanted the computer to speak and respond "to the intent of the writer. What he did was give the computer a brain. Fortran had the ability to communicate. It bridged the gap between machine and human."

Backus loved chess and photography and took many pictures of flowers. He kept a 400 CD library of mostly baroque music, which he loved to listen to, at length and in silence, with his daughter Karen. With daughter Paula, it was Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, which he also loved.

On his CD player when he died was Vivaldi's Cello Sonata No. 5 in E minor. The books on his table were "Catcher in the Rye," "Huckleberry Finn" and "How the Irish Saved Civilization."

His daughters said they had talked it over and thought it best to let the world know he'd been upset with the decline of "his greatest asset, his mind," and had ended his own life.

"He did it with the utmost respect and responsibility," said Paula Backus. "He'd said he didn't want to become a drooling idiot in an old folks home.

"It says a lot about him. He was in command of his faculties, but had little short-term memory. He said he lived in the continual present."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Paula, left, and Karen Backus talk about their father, John Backus, who led an IBM team in the invention of Fortran in the 1950s. John Backus died on March 17. On Paula’s lap is Dinah, whom her father used to walk every day.