In Memoriam: Charles W. Bachman 1924-2017

Charles William Bachman

Article originally published in Communications of the ACM.
By Lawrence M. Fisher, Senior Editor/News for ACM Magazines.

Charles William “Charlie” Bachman, the “father of databases” who received the ACM A.M. Turing Award for 1973 for creating the first database management system, died July 13 at the age of 92.

Born in Manhattan, KS, in 1924, Bachman graduated high school one semester early so he could satisfy freshman requirements to enter Michigan State College (now University). He then served for two years in the U.S. Army Anti-Aircraft Artillery Corps in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, which exposed him to the simple mechanical computer used to target a plane’s future position for the anti-aircraft guns According to a biography of Bachman by University of Wisconsin professor Thomas Haigh, the computer’s predictions were “based on a straight-line extrapolation of its previous trajectory,” which convinced Bachman “both of the importance of predictive control loops and the difficulty of accurately hitting future targets.”

Returning to Michigan State at the end of World War II, Bachman earned his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.

He went to work for Dow Chemical in Midland, MI, in 1950. His work on economic trade-offs and design choices led to work analyzing the capital cost of building Dow manufacturing facilities, for which he managed to obtain time on mechanical punched-card computing devices used by the Accounting Department, as Haigh noted, “to iteratively solve networks of simultaneous equations representing data collected from several Dow plants. He wired plug boards and operated the machines himself.”

In 1957, Bachman was named to head Dow’s Data Processing Department. On his recommendation, the company ordered an IBM 709 computer, which qualified Dow for membership in Share Inc., a volunteer-run user group for IBM mainframe computers (even though IBM eventually cancelled that order). Bachman quickly became a leader in that group. At his second Share meeting, he met Harry Tellier of General Electric, and they became founding members of the Share Data Processing Committee. That group sponsored a collaborative project to create what became known as 9PAC, an updated version of the Hanford report generator package for the IBM 709, which was released in 1959 and became widely deployed.

Bachman also was active in Share’s Committee on Theory Information Handling until he left Dow in 1960, moving to New York City for a staff position in General Electric’s Production Control Services Group. That group used a factory in Philadelphia to test its designs for an integrated planning system called MIACS that would automate factory planning, scheduling, operational control, and inventory control. Bachman described it as the first integrated manufacturing control system, the “ancestor” of material requirement planning (MRP) programs and bill of materials processing systems.

In creating MIACS, Haigh wrote, Bachman and his colleagues “produced a useful and powerful integrated system in about four years. In the process, they invented some of the most fundamental technologies behind today’s large-scale administrative computer systems. ”

MIACS was based up on the Integrated Data Store (IDS), which was based on Bachman’s concept of an “information inventory,” and was first to adopt the “network data model” in which the system would support and enforce relationships between records. Bachman’s IDS design exploited the power of disk storage and provided application programmers with a set of tools for data manipulation.

Bachman moved to General Electric’s Computer Department in Arizona in 1964, where he worked on a number of projects in the Project Planning Group over the ensuing six years, before joining the Advanced Software Group.

Bachman helped General Electric build another management information system, the Weyerhauser Comprehensive Operating Supervisor, or WEYCOS 2, for Weyerhauser’s Wood Products division in Tacoma, WA. The system allowed employees around the country to send messages directly to the computer to update records or request information.

Bachman and colleagues eventually adapted IDS so a single database could be shared by up to eight application programs running simultaneously.

An early member of the Data Base Task Group organized by the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages (Codasyl), a consortium formed in 1959 to guide the development of a standard programming language that could be used on many computers, which led to the development of COBOL and other standards, the group endorsed Bachman’s network data model approach over IBM’s less-flexible hierarchical data model.

Bachman’s other main project of this era was DataBASIC, which extended the Basic interpreted programming language to include the data-manipulation capabilities needed to create and query databases. Bachman wrote at the time that DataBasic was “designed to do for the IDS/COBOL world what which BASIC had done for the FORTRAN world.”

Bachman was awarded the ACM A.M. Turing Award for 1973 for his outstanding contributions to database technology. He was the eighth person to receive the Award. As Haigh observed, “At that time, computer science was a young discipline, and its leaders were struggling to establish it as a respectable academic field with its own areas of theory, rather than as just a technical tool needed to support the work of real scientists such as physicists, so the awards tended to go to brilliant theorists working in prestigious universities. Bachman was the first Turing Award winner without a Ph.D., the first to be trained in engineering rather than science, the first to win for the application of computers to business administration, the first to win for a specific piece of software, and the first who would spend his whole career in industry.”

He was named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1977 for his pioneering work in database systems.

Bachman received the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (NMTI) for 2012 “for fundamental inventions in database management, transaction processing, and software engineering.” The award is granted by the President to American inventors/innovators who have made significant contributions to the development of new and important technology. The award was presented to Bachman in 2014 by President Barack Obama.

He was nominated for the NMTI by U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who said on hearing of his death, “Charles Bachman was an extraordinary scientist, innovator, and pioneer worthy of our nation’s highest honor for technological achievement. His conceptualization and implementation of the first database management system fundamentally changed the way that we conduct business and touched the life of every American. The ability to store information in an organized system that integrated smoothly with already existing programming languages allowed American businesses to transcend the limitations of physical storage space, ushering in a new realm of possibilities.

“His peers’ esteem demonstrates the enormous positive impact that Charles had on his field and the wide-reaching benefits that his invention has created for the United States and beyond. The United States would not be the worldwide hub for technological innovation had it not been for the achievements of Charles Bachman.”

Data scientist Gary Rector, who wrote one of the supporting letters of recommendation for Bachman’s NMTI, said he was introduced to Bachman when he was in high school, and that Bachman “encouraged me to pursue computer science and gave me much-needed confidence as I headed to college.” Bachman, he said, was “humble, kind, generous, and a gentle soul; his entire family reflects that humanity. Charlie loved flowers and had a smile that embraced everyone. His heart connected to people more meaningfully than any database could ever do merely with data. To connect to people in this way is the greatest lesson he gave me.”

George Colliat, who worked with Bachman at General Electric in the 1970s and wrote a supporting letter of recommendation for Bachman’s NMTI, said, “I have learned from his ability to look for solutions that transcend the problems at hand and thereby multiply the value of the solutions. He invented Database to optimize information access on disk storage; he invented Entity Relationship diagrams to describe and structure information; he invented the seven-layer Open System Interconnection architecture while designing new networks for Honeywell.

“Charlie’s human values have influenced me as much as his creative genius. His respect for his colleagues, always looking for their positive contribution, his patience in explaining ideas to people who were not always at his level, his humility and open mind in always listening to others as an opportunity to learn something new, characterize him as a gentleman in this industry. ”

In 2014, Bachman was named a Fellow of the ACM “for contributions to database technology, notably the integrated data store.”

Bachman was named a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2015, for his early work on developing database management systems. The organization observed, Bachman had been “an analyst, developer, architect, standards leader, and entrepreneur in computer software” during the course of a 50-year career. “He is best known for his invention of the first random access database management system, the Integrated Data Store (IDS). He was also the driving force in creating the first packaged enterprise resource planning solution, MIACS, and for establishing online transaction processing systems for large enterprises.”

Also in 2015, Michigan State University awarded Bachman an honorary doctorate of engineering. The award citation noted Bachman had “been at the forefront of computer science for more than 65 years, serving as an industrial researcher, developer, and manager for some of the most well-known companies in the world.” Among his accomplishments, the university noted, “You are best known for your conceptual work with databases, having developed the Bachman Diagram, used to design a relational “logical” architecture for storing data.

“You developed one of the first database management systems, then you developed the first multiprogramming network access to your database system.

“One of your most practical and far-reaching contributions derived from your leadership as chair of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) subcommittee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). That committee created the seven-layer networking model for Internet communication, which standardized communication functions among systems, without regard to their underlying internal structure.”

Haigh said Bachman was almost 80 when they first met; “at that time, he was using Microsoft Access to rough out a database design for a startup company devoted to the freezing of cord blood.” They spent two days together for an oral history project sponsored by ACM SIGMOD, but stayed in touch afterward; “Bachman read my draft articles on database history and told me what I’d gotten wrong, while I helped his family nominate him for well-deserved honors.

“The last time I saw him, he was visiting Milwaukee for a family wedding. Bachman was then close to 90 but still sharp and enjoying life – talking about the article he was working on and his chats with E. O. Wilson in the retirement community they shared. He never stopped trying to understand how things worked, or trying to make them work better. I feel honored to have known him.”

Bachman’s son, Jon, said his father hired him as the first programmer for Bachman Information Systems, and “In the 11 years I worked with Charlie, we spent many days working hand in hand on everything from design, coding, testing, documenting, to selling software products. My experience with Charlie and his other employees was like a 11-year apprenticeship with the founder of the modern computing industry.”

On the impact of his father’s achievements, he observed, the vision of the Integrated Data Store (database management system) resulted in “a high-performance direct access storage model (that) allows developers to build large efficient databases of any type of business or operational data. In fact, the first versions were so successful that they became established as the most important system software on mainframe computers of that era. Charlie’s database provided for a single source of truth for the business and thus brought about the emergence of real-time transaction processing we are so used to today with large Web and SaaS businesses. Online commerce began on this foundation.”

In an interview with the British Computer Society in 2008, Bachman was asked who in the IT industry “inspired you or was a role model for you?” He replied, “The inventors, the developers of new concepts, the solvers of previously unsolved problems, the assemblers of new and interesting combinations of old technologies. Take Sir Maurice Wilkes, Edgars Dijkstra, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.”

Bachman was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Constance Hadley Bachman, in 2012. He is survived by their four children, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held for Bachman at the Brookhaven at Lexington lifecare community in Lexington, MA, later this summer.

New York Times tribute to Charlie Bachman.