Turing Award Innovation Lag

Created 2006-03-05 / Edited 2006-03-05

A few days ago I noticed that Peter Nuar was given the 2005 Turing Award. I thought to myself "self, doesn't that name sound familiar?" "I believe it does," I replied. That is Peter Naur of Backus-Naur Form. That, in conjunction with his greater work on Agol 60, is why he got the award. Backus got his award in 1977, for inventing FORTRAN (which is, shall we say, significant).

But why the lag between the work and the award? It's not like we just now noticed that BNF and Algol have been a huge contribution to software technology. Looking at the list I saw some others... Alan Kay wasn't recognised until 2003 for his early 1970's work; the RSA guys were recognised in 2002 for work from 1977.

Maybe its not a big deal -- it could be that it just takes a while to recognise the work. The early awards were given for more recent works because there weren't any older works. Maybe the Turing Award itself is lagging in quality or direction.

But what if our rate of innovation has slowed? A rough look suggests that towards the beginning of the award it took up to 20 years between contribution and recognition. The more recent awards took more like 30 years. Such a small data set to be sure, but it does make me ponder.