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Frederick P. Brooks Jr., computer design innovator, dies at age 91

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Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software engineering helped shape computer science, passed away Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, NC. He was 91 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son Roger, who said Dr Brooks’s health had been deteriorating since he suffered a stroke two years earlier.

Dr. Brooks had an extensive career that included establishing the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina and pioneering 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 rivals such as Burroughs, UNIVAC and NCR were emerging, this was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Fortune magazine, in an article titled “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble”, described it as a venture the company was “betting on”.

Until the 360, each computer model had its own hardware design. Engineers had to revise their software programs to run on every new machine that was introduced.

But IBM promises to put an end to that costly, repetitive work Dr. Brooks and some colleagues committed. In April 1964, IBM announced the 360 ​​as a family of six compatible computers. Programs written for one 360 ​​model can run on others without the need to rewrite the software as customers move from smaller computers to larger computers.

The design shared by the many machines was described in a paper written by Dr. Brooks and his colleagues Jean Amdahl and Gerrit Blauw, titled “Architecture of the IBM System/360.”

“It was a breakthrough in computer architecture that Fred Brooks pioneered,” said Richard Sites, a computer designer who worked with Dr. Brooks, in an interview.

But there was a problem. The software proved to be a more difficult challenge than anticipated, as the machines were not ready to deliver on IBM’s promise of compatibility and the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously. Operating system software is often described as a computer’s command and control system. OS/360 was the predecessor of Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

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When IBM announced the 360, Dr. Brooks only 33 years old and he went to education. He had agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and started a computer science department in Chapel Hill. But IBM president Thomas Watson Jr. asked him to stay on for another year to fix the company’s software problems.

Dr. Brooks agreed and eventually the OS/360 problems were resolved. The 360 ​​project proved to be a huge success and cemented the company’s dominance of the computer market in the 1980s.

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

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

Dr. Brooks drew hard-earned lessons from struggling with the OS/360 software for his book “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” First published in 1975, it quickly became recognized as a bizarre classic, quickly selling year after year and regularly cited as gospel by computer scientists.

The book by dr. Brooks “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering,” first published in 1975, is recognized as a cult classic, quickly selling year after year, and regularly reviewed by computer scientists. Often quoted as gospel.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, including pithy quotes from Shakespeare and Sophocles, and chapter titles like “Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Sack” and “Hatching a Catastrophe.” There are practical tips along the way. For example: Organize engineers from large software projects into smaller groups that Dr. Brooks calls the “surgical team.”

The most famous of his principles was what he called Brooks’ Law: “Adding manpower to a software project too late makes it later.” Dr. Brooks himself admitted that he “exaggerated excessively”, but he exaggerated to make a point.

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He suggested that it is often better to rethink things than to add more people. And in software engineering, a profession with elements of artistry and creativity, employees are not interchangeable labor units.

In the age of the Internet, some software developers have suggested that Brooks’ law no longer applies. Large open-source software projects — so called because the underlying “source code” is publicly visible — have armies of internet-connected engineers working to debug the code and recommend fixes. Yet even open source projects are usually managed by a small group of individuals, more surgical teams than the wisdom of the masses.

Frederick Phillips Brooks Jr. was born on April 19, 1931 in Durham, NC, the eldest of three boys. His father was a doctor and his mother, Octavia (Broome) Brooks, was a housewife.

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

Dr. Brooks received his 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, an early programming language designer, who taught an “Automated Data Processing” course.

Along with industry, academia adopted computers at a rapid pace. Dr. Brooks held summer jobs at Marathon Oil and North American Aviation, as well as Bell Labs and IBM.

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

During his IBM years, Dr. Brooks described as “a convinced and committed Christian” after his son attended Bible study sessions led by his colleague and fellow computer designer Dr. Blue. “I began to see that the intellectual problems I had as a scientist with Christianity were secondary,” recalls Dr. Brooks in an interview with the Computer History Museum. He taught Sunday School at a Methodist church in Chapel Hill for over 50 years and served as a leader and faculty advisor for Christian studies and community groups at the university.

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In addition to his son Roger, Dr. Brooks survived by his wife; his brother, John Brooks; two more children, Kenneth Brooks and Barbara La Dine; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Brooks received numerous awards for his achievements, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985 and the Turing Award in 1991, also known as the Nobel Prize in computer science.

Major awards usually refer to his work in computer design and software engineering. But during his years in North Carolina, Dr. Brooks also turned to computer graphics and virtual reality as this was an emerging and important area. He led research efforts that experts say include techniques for the rapid and realistic rendering of images and applications to the study of molecules in biology.

“The impact of his work in computer graphics has been tremendous,” said Patrick Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and a Turing Award winner. “Fred Brooks was a thinker ahead of his time.”

While his career spanned a wide variety of interests, there was a common theme, said Henry Fuchs, a University of North Carolina professor and longtime collaborator, in an interview. Whether designing a new family of computers for use in economics or helping biologists locate molecules to develop new drugs, said Dr. Fuchs, dr. Brooks has redefined the role of computer scientists. Seen as “Toolsmith”.

“Fred’s idea,” he said, “was that computer scientists are primarily toolmakers who help others do their jobs better.”

Source: www.nytimes.com

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