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

Brooks had a wide-ranging career that included creating the computer science department at the University of North Carolina and leading influential research in computer graphics and virtual reality.

November 24, 2022 / 09:37 PM IST
Frederick P. Brooks Jr

Frederick P. Brooks Jr

Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software engineering helped shape the field of computer science, died Nov. 17 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his son, Roger, who said Brooks had been in declining health since having a stroke two years ago.

Brooks had a wide-ranging career that included creating the computer science department at the University of North Carolina and leading influential research in computer graphics and virtual reality.

But he is best known for being one of the technical leaders of IBM’s 360 computer project in the 1960s. At a time when smaller rivals like Burroughs, Univac and NCR were making inroads, it was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Fortune magazine, in an article with the headline “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble,” described it as a “bet the company” venture.

Until the 360, each model of computer had its own bespoke hardware design. That required engineers to overhaul their software programs to run on every new machine that was introduced.

But IBM promised to eliminate that costly, repetitive labor with an approach championed by 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. Programs written for one 360 model could run on the others, without the need to rewrite software, as customers moved from smaller to larger computers.

The shared design across several machines was described in a paper, written by Brooks and his colleagues Gene Amdahl and Gerrit Blaauw, titled “Architecture of the IBM System/360.”

“That was a breakthrough in computer architecture that Fred Brooks led,” Richard Sites, a computer designer who studied under Brooks, said in an interview.

But there was a problem. The software needed to deliver on the IBM promise of compatibility across machines and the capability to run multiple programs at once was not ready, as it proved to be a far more daunting challenge than anticipated. Operating system software is often described as the command and control system of a computer. The OS/360 was a forerunner of Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

At the time IBM made the 360 announcement, Brooks was 33 and headed for 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 president of IBM, asked him to stay on for another year to tackle the company’s software troubles.

Brooks agreed, and eventually the OS/360 problems were sorted out. The 360 project turned out to be an enormous success, cementing the company’s dominance of the computer market into the 1980s.

“Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who changed computing,” Arvind Krishna, IBM’s CEO 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's computer science department, he served as its chair for 20 years.

Brooks took the hard-earned lessons from grappling with the OS/360 software as grist for his book “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” First published in 1975, it soon became recognized as a quirky classic, selling briskly year after year and routinely cited as gospel by computer scientists.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with 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 on big software projects into small groups, which Brooks called “surgical teams.”

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

Brooks grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, and majored in physics at Duke University before going on to graduate school at Harvard. There were no computer science departments at the time, but computers were becoming research tools in physics, mathematics and engineering departments.

Brooks received his doctorate in applied mathematics in 1956; his adviser was Howard Aiken, a physicist and computer pioneer. He was a teaching assistant for Kenneth Iverson, an early designer of programming languages, who taught a course on “automatic data processing.”

Industry as well as academia was increasingly adopting computers. 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 Harvard’s commencement ceremony. Then, Brooks recalled in an oral history interview for the Computer History Museum, they took off together to jobs at IBM.

During his IBM years, Brooks became what his son described as “a convinced and committed Christian” after attending Bible study sessions hosted by Blaauw, his colleague and fellow computer designer. “I came to see that the intellectual difficulties I was having as a scientist with Christianity were secondary,” Brooks recalled in the Computer History Museum interview. He taught Sunday school for more than 50 years at a Methodist church in Chapel Hill and served as a leader and faculty adviser to Christian study and fellowship groups at the university.

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

c.2022 The New York Times Company
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New York Times
first published: Nov 24, 2022 09:37 pm