The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Frederick Brooks

Born 19 April 1931, Durham, North Carolina, USA

ACM A.M. Turing Award (1999) “for landmark contributions to computer architecture, operating systems, and software engineering.”

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., was born in Durham NC, and grew up in Greenville NC. He received an A.B. summa cum laude in physics from Duke and in 1956 a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard, under Howard Aiken, the architect of the Harvard-IBM Mark I computer (1944) and inventor of the later Harvard computers.

After his studies he joined IBM, where he worked in various positions at the sites in Poughkeepsie and Yorktown Heights, New York. He was an architect of IBM’s first supercomputer to work with transistors (IBM 7090 “Stretch”). Later he was responsible as the project manager for the development of IBM’s pioneering System/360 family of mainframe computers and then of its Operating System/360 software. For these two latter works he received the U.S.A. National Medal of Technology jointly with Bob O. Evans and Erich Bloch.

In 1964, he founded the Computer Science Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chaired it for 20 years. Currently, he is Kenan Professor of Computer Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. His principal research is in real-time, three-dimensional, computer graphics – “virtual reality“. His research has helped biochemists solve the structure of complex molecules and enabled architects to “walk through” structures still being designed. He has pioneered the use of force display to supplement visual-aural graphics.

Brooks is an active Christian and has taught a Sunday school class at Orange United Methodist Church for adults for over 40 years. He is married to Nancy Greenwood Brooks. They have three children: Kenneth, Roger, and Barbara, and nine grandchildren.

Brooks has served on the National Science Board and the Defense Science Board. In addition to the ACM A.M. Turing Award and the National Medal of Technology, he received the Franklin Institute’s Bower Prize (1995), the IEEE John von Neumann Medal (1993), the IEEE Computer Society’s McDowell (1970) and Computer Pioneer Awards (1980), the ACM Allen Newell (1994) and Distinguished Service Awards (1987), the AFIPS Harry Goode Award (1989), the ACM-IEEE Eckert-Mauchly Award (1994), and an honorary Doctor of Technical Science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich, 1991). He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the (U.K.) Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Sitting at a computer today we are used to clicking with a mouse on dialogue boxes or other forms of input to make the computer work; the computer apparently executes several programs in parallel. In former times, there was only one way to run a program: step by step. The computer executed a program, consisting of a set of instructions to output the result at the end.

Brooks and Dura Sweeney in 1957 patented an interrupt system for the IBM Stretch that introduced most features of today’s interrupt systems. Such a system enables computers to run several programs side by side, since the processor reacts on alerts from software or hardware and switches among programs.

Brooks also coined the term “computer architecture”. His System/360 team first achieved strict binary compatibility, upward and downward, in a computer family. His early concern for word processing led to his selection of the 8-bit byte and the provision of a lowercase alphabet for the System/360, the engineering of many new 8-bit input/output devices, and the introduction of a character-string datatype in the PL/I programming language.

Brooks summarized his decades of experience in hardware and software development in a book entitled “The Mythical Man-Month”. It includes the much-quoted “Brooks Law”: a late software project will be delayed if one adds people. He further examined software engineering in a 1986 paper, “No Silver Bullet“. In 1997, he and Professor Gerrit Blaauw published a 1200-page research monograph, “Computer Architecture: Concepts and Evolution”. He treats engineering design across many media in his 2010 “The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist”.