Frederick B. Brooks Jr., innovator of computer design, dies at 91

Frederick B. died.

His death was confirmed by his son, Roger, who said that Dr. Brooks has been in failing health since suffering a stroke two years ago.

Dr. Brooks has had an extensive career that has included creating the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina and leading influential research in computer graphics and virtual reality.

But he is best known as one of the technical leaders of IBM’s 360 Computer project in the 1960s. At a time when smaller competitors such as Burroughs, Univac and NCR were making inroads, this was a very ambitious project. Fortune magazine, in an article titled “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble”, called it a “bet company” project.

Until the 360, each model of computer had its own hardware design. This required engineers to overhaul their software so that it would work on every new device introduced.

But IBM promised to eliminate this costly, repetitive work with an approach championed by Dr. Brooks, a young engineering star at the company, and a few colleagues. In April 1964, IBM announced the 360 ​​as a family of six compatible computers. Software written for one 360 ​​model could run on the others, without having to rewrite the software, as customers moved from smaller computers to larger computers.

The common design across many devices is described in a paper by Dr. Brooks and colleagues Jane Amdahl and Gerrit Blau titled “IBM System Architecture/360”.

“This was a breakthrough in computer engineering led by Fred Brooks,” Richard Sites, a computer designer who studied under Dr. Brooks, said in an interview.

But there was a problem. The software needed to deliver on IBM’s promise of cross-device compatibility and the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously was not ready, proving to be a more daunting challenge than anticipated. Operating system software is often described as the command and control system of a computer. OS/360 was the forerunner of Microsoft Windows, iOS by Apple, and Android by Google.

At the time IBM made the 360 ​​announcement, Dr. Brooks was only 33 years old and heading into academia. He had agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and start a computer science department at Chapel Hill. But Thomas Watson Jr., the head of IBM, asked him to stay for another year to address the company’s software problems.

Dr. Brooks agreed, and eventually OS/360’s problems were resolved. Project 360 was a massive success, cementing the company’s dominance of the computer market in the 1980s.

“Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who changed computing,” Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM and himself a computer scientist, said in a statement. “We are indebted to him for his pioneering contributions to the industry.”

After founding the University of North Carolina Computer Science Department, he served as its chair for 20 years.

Dr. Brooks has taken the hard-won lessons of handling OS/360 software as a staple in his book The Legendary Man’s Month: Essays on Software Engineering. First published in 1975, it quickly became known as a quirky classic, selling out rapidly year after year and routinely being referred to as gospel by computer scientists.

Dr. Brooks’ book The Legendary Man’s Month: Essays on Software Engineering, first published in 1975, has become known as a quirky classic, selling out rapidly year after year, and being routinely cited by computer scientists as bible.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with pithy quotes from Shakespeare and Sophocles and chapter titles such as “Ten Pounds in a Five-pound Sack” and “The Hatching of Disaster”. There are practical tips along the way. For example: Engineers on large software projects organized into small groups, which Dr. Brooks called “surgical teams.”

His most famous principle was what he called Brooks’ Law: “Adding manpower to a software project late makes it later.” Dr. Brooks himself admitted that he was “outrageously oversimplifying”, but he was overstating a point.

He suggested that it is often smarter to rethink things than to add more people. And in software engineering, a profession with technical and creative elements, workers are not interchangeable units of work.

In the age of the Internet, some software developers have suggested that Brooks’ Law no longer applies. Large open-source software projects—so named because the underlying “source” code is open for all to see—have armies of engineers online to discover flaws in the code and recommend fixes. However, even open source projects are usually governed by a small group of individuals, more a surgical team than the wisdom of the crowd.

Frederick Phillips Brooks Jr. was born on April 19, 1931, in Durham, North Carolina, the oldest of three boys. His father was a doctor, and his mother, Octavia (Broom) Brooks, was a homemaker.

Dr. Brooks grew up in Greenville and majored in physics at Duke University before graduating from Harvard. There were no computer science departments at the time, but computers became research tools in the physics, mathematics, and engineering departments.

Dr. Brooks has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1956; His advisor was Howard Aiken, a physicist and computer pioneer. He was a teaching assistant to Kenneth Iverson, one of the first designers of programming languages, who taught a course on “Automatic Data Handling”.

Industry as well as academia were increasingly dependent on computers. Dr. Brooks had summer jobs at Marathon Oil and North American Aviation, and at Bell Labs and IBM.

He also met his future wife, Nancy Greenwood, at Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in physics. They married two days after the Harvard commencement ceremony. Then, Dr. Brooks recalled in an oral history interview with the Computer History Museum, they went off together to jobs at IBM.

During his years at IBM, Dr. Brooks became what his son described as a “convinced and committed Christian” after attending Bible study sessions hosted by fellow computer designer Dr. Brooks. Blau. “I came to see that my intellectual difficulties as a Christian scientist were secondary,” Dr. Brooks recalled in an interview with the Computer History Museum. He has taught Sunday school for over 50 years at a Methodist church in Chapel Hill and has served as leader and faculty advisor for Christian Fellowship and Study Groups at the university.

In addition to his son Roger, Dr. Brooks is survived by his wife; His brother, John Brooks. two other children, Kenneth Brooks and Barbara La Dean; Nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Brooks has received numerous awards in recognition of his achievements, including the National Medal for Technology and Innovation in 1985 and the Turing Prize, often called the Nobel Prize for Computer Science, in 1999.

Major awards were usually cited for his work in computer design and software engineering. But during his years at North Carolina, Dr. Brooks also turned to computer graphics and virtual reality, seeing it as an emerging and important field. He led research efforts that experts say have included techniques for rapid, photo-realistic rendering and applications for studying molecules in biology.

“The impact of his work in computer graphics has been enormous,” said Patrick Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and fellow Turing Prize laureate. Fred Brooks was an intellectual leader ahead of his time.

Henry Fox, a University of North Carolina professor and longtime colleague, said in an interview that while his career spanned a range of interests, there was a common theme. Whether designing a new family of computers used throughout the economy or helping biologists explore molecules to develop new drugs, Dr. Fox said, Dr. Brooks saw the role of computer scientists as “tool makers.”

He said, “Fred’s view is that computer scientists are essentially builders of tools to help others do their jobs better.”

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