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Where does the term "front-end" come from? Is there a particular presentation/talk/job-posting which is regarded as the first use of the term? Is someone credited with coining the term?

The Merriam-Webster entry for "front-end" claims the first known use of the term was 1973 but it doesn't seem to provide details about that first known use.

Likewise, the Wikipedia page about front and back ends is fairly low quality, and cites very few sources.

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"Front end" has been used in electronics for a long time (e.g. RF receiver front ends) - this almost certainly predates its use in e.g. compiler terminology. –  Paul R Nov 25 '12 at 21:50
    
Well the word "mouse" was around before computers but we can still credit Bill English with using it in the context of computers. I'm hoping we can find the same information for "front end". –  Richard JP Le Guen Nov 25 '12 at 21:59
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That's rather a silly comparison - "front end" as used in computing and electronics (and other engineering disciplines) has much the same meaning in each - there's nothing really special about its use in computing. –  Paul R Nov 25 '12 at 22:02
    
@RichardJPLeeGuen we also credit Bill Gates with stating that "640k ought to be enough for anyone," when in fact he didn't say anything like that –  Cole Johnson Nov 25 '12 at 23:48
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@Cole Johnson "The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity." -Abraham Lincoln, 1859 –  Zavior Nov 26 '12 at 8:44
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3 Answers

In the real world of radio, the "front end" of a superheterodyne radio receiver comprises the preselector filter, the RF amp (if there is one: below 10 MHz, they generally aren't needed), the local oscillator, and the first mixer.

The preselector filter provides rough tuning at the incoming radio frequency. Depending on the receiver design, it may be fixed-tuned, to select the band of interest, or (for e.g. a typical AM table radio) it may be tuned in synchronization with the local oscillator.

Really inexpensive table radios used pentagrid converter tubes (6BE6 or 12BE6) that combined the local oscillator and mixer functions in one device. An analogous device today would be the Philips SA612AN mixer/oscillator (better known to a generation of hams as the NE602).

The front end is connected to the antenna and operates at the incoming signal frequency. It produces output at the first intermediate frequency.

Analogously, the "front end" of a web service application is the piece that gets the incoming requests from the outside Internet at large.

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OED electronics

The earliest electronics definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

  1. Electronics. The part of a radio or television receiver to which the aerial signal goes first; esp. the tuner, local oscillator, and mixer of a superheterodyne.

The first quotation of this is:

1938 G. E. Sterling Radio Man. (ed. 3) iv. 171 Thus improved ‘front end’ selectivity is indicated, and while this can be provided by merely adding more front-end tuned circuits, such a procedure wastes some of the wanted signal.


OED computing

The first computing sense in the OED is 1971:

4. a. An electronic device or computer system that supplies input or provides access to another device; the part of a computer system that a user deals with directly; spec. (in full front-end processor), a computer that processes or routes input for a central computer, e.g. in a multi-terminal system. Usu. attrib., as front-end machine, front-end system, etc.

1971 N. Chapin Computers xii. 313 Some subcenters are sufficiently extensive to be substantially free-standing complete computers, as suggested by the names given some types, such as peripheral or front-end processors.


The OED also has front-end charge/fees from 1962 and front-end loader/truck from 1959.


1970 antedating

Searching Google Books, I found some antedatings.

On-line data-acquisition systems in nuclear physics, 1969 (1970) by the National Research Council (U.S.). Ad Hoc Panel on On-line Computers in Nuclear Research uses the term nine times, the first two in quotes indicating the term is new or unfamiliar. Here's three examples:

The interfacing system may include a fixed-wired "front-end," such as that used at Yale, a small computer, such as that used at Rochester, or both.

...

Development of a suitable general and powerful data-acquisition interface and control unit (front end) with a set of compatible nucelur instrumentation modules (scalers, ADC's and general-purpose input registers).

...

A combination of a large (by present standards) computer with a powerful small computer as a front end was designed.


1965 antedating

A possible 1965 can be found in Abstracts - Symposium on Biomathematics and Computer Science in the Life Sciences:

The front-end machine handles all input/output operations involving card readers, printers, etc., while the main computer is free ...

...

 His program is immediately read by the front-end machine and stacked in a disc or drum where it waits its turn.

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I've submitted both antedatings to the OED. –  Hugo Nov 26 '12 at 12:53
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Good find! "computer that processes or routes input for a central computer"; "The front-end machine handles all input/output operations..."; +1 –  Richard JP Le Guen Nov 26 '12 at 17:37
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US patent 2598857, filed on January 29, 1949
This patent specifically talks about a "front end" receiver in the sense of a block diagram.

Moreover, it is apparent that a considerable saving in cost of a wide range television receiver "front end" make be realized through the use of the present invention. For example, in a television receiver RF "front end" incorporating a push-pull RF amplifier, ...

This usage is already older than am I. I think it's considerably older than that.

US patent 1795397, filed on Dec 29, 1927.
This patent uses the terms "front end" and "back end" extensively. A couple of example uses:

Fig. 5 corresponds with Fig. 4 but has the receiver at the "front end" instead of at the "back end".

It is known that a single wave-antenna can be "compensated" to secure null reception from any specufued angle of incidence of the radio waves, by suitably combining a small portion of the front-end current with the back-end output current. (See, for instance, Fig. 19 of the above-cited paper by Beverage et al.)

The referenced article is by Harold H. Beverage, published in the March, 1923 issue of the "Journal of the A.I.E.E." (Good luck finding that on the internet.) I looked at patents by Beverage, and he doesn't appear to use the term "front end" or "back end" in his patents.

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