Here’s an early birthday salute to the late Daniel McCracken, author of the definitive textbooks on FORTRAN. McCracken, who passed away in 2011, would have turned 90 on July 23. He wrote 26 books, including the first textbook on FORTRAN (Digital Computer Programming in 1957) and numerous other FORTRAN and COBOL textbooks. His books were translated into 15 languages, and he even co-edited To Love or to Perish: The Technological Crisis and the Churches with anthropologist Margaret Mead.

The 1961 edition of A Guide to FORTRAN Programming sold an estimated 300,000 copies. In his obituary, The New York Times explained the legacy of McCracken’s textbooks: “ … his books are not like the how-to computer books of more recent years written for consumers, which mainly offer tips for using personal computers and smartphones. His have been used as programming textbooks in universities around the world and as reference bibles by practicing professionals.”

McCracken’s textbooks help develop FORTRAN

FORTRAN, short for Formula Translation, was the brainchild of an IBM team led by John Backus. This “third-generation” programming language combined algebraic equations with English shorthand, making computing more accessible. Earlier languages were composed of binary numbers, rendering them unintelligible to most. Backus described early programming as “doing hand-to-hand combat with the machine.” The accessibility of FORTRAN—combined with McCracken’s accessible textbooks—opened the world of computing to non-scientists.

The layperson is probably most familiar with FORTRAN from the movie Hidden Figures; NASA’s Dorothy Vaughn, portrayed by Octavia Spencer in the hit film, was a FORTRAN programming expert.

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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