U of Waterloo alumni look back on creator of Fortran variant

While the IT industry was mourning the loss of Fortran creator John Backus last month, longtime faculty and alumni at the University of Waterloo still miss the man who helped create a highly successful Canadian variant of the popular programming language.

This year the University of Waterloo will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its computer science department. A key figure from those early days was J. Wesley Graham, a professor who led a team of students to create the Waterloo Fortran IV compiler, also known as WATFOR. Initially developed for the IBM 7040 computer in the summer of 1965, WATFOR later ran on the IBM 360/370, DEC PDP-11 and VAX machines, received rave reviews internationally and led to a spin-off company, WATCOM. Graham died in 1999.

“We get all kinds of calls from people who want to use this software on various things,” said Don Cowan, professor emeritus at the university who led the department when WATFOR was created. “That software sold a lot of machines for IBM over the years.”

WAFOR was originally developed in response to problems the university was having with its IBM 7040.

“It took forever to compile programs. If there was any problem in your program it was just hard to figure out what was wrong,” said Jim Mitchell, a student at the time. “As soon as they got the program to run, it stopped. When it ran correctly it would run a long time.”

Mitchell, now a Sun Fellow at Sun Microsystems, wrote a student paper in 1965 about building a fast compiler. That’s when he was called into Graham’s office. “The teacher from the program was there, and the paper was on Graham’s desk,” Mitchell said. “He said, ‘So, do you think you could really do this?’ And I said ‘Yes, with some extremely good programmers.”’

Graham coorindated a team that developed WATFOR that summer, Cowan said. “In those days, writing a compiler was a monstrous thing. They did it in record time — three months.”

In a book that was published by the university to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its computer science department, Peter James Ponzo looked back on WATFOR’s early success.

“Compile times were five to fifty times faster than other available compilers and by the fall it was in use at over 20 universities and computing centres in North America,” Ponzo wrote. “Within a year it would be adopted by computing centres in over eight countries, and the number of student users at UW increased to over 2,500.”

WATFOR went through substantial revisions once Waterloo upgraded to the IBM 360. This version, WATFOR IV (or WATFIV), was produced by a different set of students, but Graham was the guiding force that kept it going.

“He could attract people to work with him,” Cowan said. “He’d see an idea, get it started and assemble a team that would carry it through to its obvious conclusion.”

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