Dusty Decks: Preserving historic software

The Library of Congress

My wife and I had dinner with John Backus tonight. He mentioned that he donated his papers to the Library of Congress. I searched the online catalog, and found the papers listed as not yet processed (LC Control Number: mm2003084968). John gave me a 13-page document listing some 211 items in the donated papers. I was pleased to see item 92: “A Church-Rosser property of closed applicative languages” by Paul McJones (IBM Research Report, 5/23/75).

John also gave me some extra copies of papers and photographs, including a photocopy of a 29-page memo whose front page says:


Programming Research Group
Applied Science Division
International Business Machines Corporation

November 10, 1954

Specifications for
The IBM Mathematical FORmula TRANslating System,

Copyright, 1954, by International Business Machines Corporation
590 Madison Avenue, New York, 22, New York

J.A.N. Lee’s annotated bibliography says this was probably written by John W. Backus, Harlan Herrick, and Irving Ziller; he notes, “This is the first formal proposal for the language FORTRAN. It lists the elements of the language that are proposed to be included in the eventual implementation, together with some suggestions for future extensions. It is interesting to match this proposal with the Programmer’s Reference Manual (1957) and to note that many of the ideas of later FORTRANs as well as ALGOL appear to have been given birth in this document.”