Jim King

I was chatting with Jim King at lunch about John Backus and the Fortran compiler (Jim worked at IBM Research for many years). Jim used Fortran (II?) and Fortran Monitor System on an IBM 709 in college in the early 1960s, and had some interesting anecdotes (e.g., the compiler turned on a front panel indicator lamp once it determined there were no syntax errors, …) — I can see that getting oral histories of users/developers will be interesting.

Jim suggested IBM’s SHARE user group library as a potentially interesting source of material. (And perhaps there were similar user groups for a few of the other companies?) Also, he worked for Boeing in Seattle in the 1960s, and said they had an extensive 7090 program library, with detailed requirements for documentation. It could be another interesting source, although he doesn’t have any current contacts into Boeing.

The Smithsonian

Based on Irv Ziller’s recollection that historic Fortran materials had been sent to the Smithsonian Institution, I looked at their web site and found this page describing the Division of Information Technology & Society, which is part of the National Museum of American History and whose collections include the Computer History Collection. My attempts to establish communication with the staff of this Division got off to a slow start. Later, I learned that they were consumed with the creation of a major new exhibition, “The Price of Freedom”, to open November 11, 2004.

Update 1/2/2016: Updated Smithsonian URLs.

Irv Ziller

Irv Ziller, who was the first person to join John Backus on the Fortran team, responded to my inquiry regarding the source code for the original Fortran compiler by saying, “I do not have the source code, however I recall material being sent to the Smithsonian to become part of their collection.”

John Backus

John Backus initiated and led the project that designed and implemented Fortran, the first high-level programming language.

I hadn’t talked to John for many years*, but tonight I called him up to say hello, and to see if he had a copy of the original Fortran compiler source code. He didn’t but suggested I contact Irv Ziller, who was the first person to join John’s Fortran project.

* In 1974 I worked for John Backus at IBM San Jose Research (before the Almaden Research Center was built) .

Software Collection Committee

The first meeting of the Software Collection Committee of the Computer History Museum was held November 19th. The purpose of the committee is to help the museum, whose mission statement is “To preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the information age”, bootstrap its software activities. Expected activities include establishing standards for categorization, preservation, etc., testing these standards on some representative software, establishing priorities for software to collect, etc. The committee was launched partly as a response to a workshop on Preserving Classic Software moderated by Grady Booch and held October 16-17.

The discussion of what software would be worth collecting first was quite interesting — people proposed various criteria, but clearly age and historical significance are key. At this meeting, or shortly thereafter, I began thinking about the first Fortran compiler, and my friend Alex Stepanov reinforced this interest. Fortran was arguably the first higher-level programming language, and its compiler was the first optimizing compiler.