Dick Sites; the ‘Tome’

In a response to Software Collection Committee chairman Bernard L. Peuto’s request for suggestions for “10 software preservation candidates for testing our processes”, Dick Sites mentioned:

I once saw and read part of the original handwritten Fortran I documentation in a basement of the Sloan building at MIT in 1965. Backus might know if any copies still exist.

When Software Collection Committee member and museum chairman Len Shustek asked, “Was what you saw source code, user-manual material, or internal design documents?”, Dick replied:

It was a Xerox copy of hand-written internal design documents. It was in the 1620 mod II room in the basement of the Sloan building on the MIT campus, 100 Memorial Drive circa spring 1966. I have always regretted not having the foresight (and money) to make a complete copy back then. As I remember, it described the overall compiler design and optimizing algorithms. I remember a fairly neat but slightly small handwriting with hand-drawn boxes and arrows for some of the algorithms. I don’t remember whose names were on it.

I’m pretty sure it was Fortran I dated circa 1957, but it could have been Fortran II. It was not describing a 1620 compiler; it just happened to be in that room. I’m not sure whether the document mentioned the target computer, but I recognized it as the IBM 704 or perhaps 709. I don’t have a clear memory of how much paper there was, but it was perhaps 50-150 pages.

Len responded:

I think I may have found what it was: In his “History of Fortran I, II, and III” article in the 10/98 issue of “Annals of Computing History”, Backus says of the April 1957 release, “Shortly after the distribution of the system, we distributed — one copy per installation — what was fondly known as the ‘Tome’, the complete symbolic listing of the entire compiler plus other system and diagnostic information, an 11×15 inch volume about four or five inches thick”. Does that sound right?

I suppose it’s impossible still to be in the basement at Sloan? The good news is that as of April 1958 there were 26 installations of Fortran at 704 sites, and if each if them was given a ‘Tome’, then one or more might have survived. Somewhere.

Dick replied:

No, not right. What I saw was HANDWRITTEN. It was not a computer listing. It was not source code. It was not an IBM manual. It was not computer paper. It was not four or five inches thick. It was not an IBM 704 or 709 installation. It was a Xerox copy (not reduced from larger paper) of handwritten documentation on 8.5×11″ white paper, perhaps 1/2″ thick at most.

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.

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) .