Jeff Rohl’s Fortran TV Course

As a first year mathematics undergraduate at the University of Manchester in 1979, I had to choose one course from another department. Like the majority of students, I chose the Fortran Programming course CS151 provided for mathematics students by the Department of Computer Science.

The course tutor was Simon Lavington, who is now perhaps best known for his historical research into early British computers (and can be seen on this video about the Ferranti Atlas computer). It used a videotaped set of lectures by Jeff Rohl. Jeff was an Australian who had come to Manchester in 1960 to do a PhD on compilers with Tony Brooker. He became a Professor at UMIST in the early 1970s and returned to Australia in 1976 to found the Department of Computer Science at the University of Western Australia.

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Jeff Rohl

The ten black and white videos, Programming in Fortran (1973), were accompanied by a 124-page book of the same title, written by Jeff and published by the University of Manchester Press.

These were the early days of computing. The book talked about punched cards, which thankfully we students did not have to use, and employed flowcharts (which it called “flow diagrams”) to illustrate the logical flow of programs. The book included the complete Fortran 66 standard in an appendix—something that would be inconceivable with most languages of today!

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Many years later I met Jeff while we were both visiting the Computer Science Department at Cornell University. He said that people regularly tell him that they learned Fortran from his book and lectures and that the videos were recorded in one continuous take. In this YouTube era it is easy to forget how innovative these early 1970s video lectures were.

Fortran is of course still around and has a large user community. Indeed it ranks 24th in the January 2016 version of the TIOBE Programming Community Index. For some context on its usage see my article Programming Languages: An Applied Mathematics View in The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics.

The most recent standard is Fortran 2008 and another revision is in preparation. An old joke goes “I don’t know what language we’ll be using in 50 years time, but it will be called Fortran.”

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From a 1990s advert for the NAG Fortran 90 compiler (http://www.nag.co.uk/nagware/np.asp).

I was sorry to discover that Jeff passed away in 2003.

Simon Lavington has kindly provided me with more information about the TV lecture courses—three in total—recorded by him and Jeff Rohl in the Department of Computer Science. I will write about these in a subsequent post.

I am grateful to Jeff’s son Andrew Rohl for providing the photo of Jeff above.

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