Frederick P. Brooks Jr., Computer Design Inventor, Dies at 91

Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software engineering helped shape the field of computer science, died Thursday at the age of 91 at his home in Chapel Hill, NC.

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

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

Until the 360, each model of computer had its own bespoke hardware design. This requires engineers to overhaul their software programs to run on each new machine introduced.

But IBM promised that a young engineer star of the company. A method championed by Brooks and a few colleagues is to eliminate that expensive, repetitive labor. In April 1964, IBM announced the 360 ​​as a family of six compatible computers. Programs written for one 360 ​​model can be run on others, without the need to rewrite software, as consumers move from smaller to larger computers.

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

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

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

When IBM announced the 360, Dr. Brooks was just 33 years old and headed for academia. He agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and start a computer science department at Chapel Hill. But IBM president Thomas Watson Jr. asked him to stay another year to deal with the company’s software problems.

Dr. Brooks agreed, and finally the OS/360 problems were solved. Project 360 became a huge success, cementing the company’s dominance in the computer market in the 1980s.

“Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who changed computing,” Arvind Krishna, IBM’s chief executive and a computer scientist himself, 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 chairman for 20 years.

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

Dr. Brooks’s book, “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering,” first published in 1975, is recognized as an uncanny classic, has sold briskly for years, and is regularly cited as gospel by computer scientists.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with subtle quotations 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 large software projects into small teams, what Dr. Brooks calls “surgical teams.”

The most well-known of his principles was what he called Brooks’ Law: “Adding manpower to a late software project builds it later.” Dr. Brooks himself admits that he is “oversimplifying,” but he is exaggerating to make a point.

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

In the Internet age, some software developers have suggested that Brooks’ Law no longer applies. Large open source software projects—so-called because the underlying “source” code is open for all to see—have armies of Internet-connected engineers to spot code bugs and recommend fixes. Still, even open-source projects are usually managed by a small group of individuals, more surgical teams than crowd wisdom.

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

Dr. Brooks grew up in Greenville and majored in physics at Duke University before attending graduate school at Harvard. There was no computer science department then, but computers were becoming research tools in physics, mathematics and engineering departments.

Dr. Brooks received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics in 1956; His mentor was Howard Aiken, a physicist and computer pioneer. He was a teaching assistant to Kenneth Iverson, an early designer of the programming language, who taught a course on “Automated Data Processing”.

Industry as well as academia was increasingly adopting computers. Dr. Brooks held 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, Dr. Brooks recalled in an oral history interview for the Computer History Museum, they left together for jobs at IBM.

During his IBM years, Dr. Brooks described his son as “a devout and committed Christian” after attending a Bible study session hosted by his colleague and fellow computer designer Dr. Blauer. “I came to see that the intellectual difficulty I had as a scientist with Christianity was secondary,” Dr. Brooks recalled in an interview with the Computer History Museum. He taught Sunday school for more than 50 years at a Methodist church in Chapel Hill and served as a leader and faculty advisor to university Christian study and fellowship groups.

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 Dine; nine great-grandchildren; and two grandchildren.

Dr. Brooks collected many awards for his achievements, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985 and the Turing Award in 1999, often called the Nobel of computer science.

Major awards usually cite his work in computer design and software engineering. But during his years at North Carolina, Dr. Brooks also focused on computer graphics and virtual reality, seeing it as an emerging and important field. He leads research efforts that experts say include rapid and realistic rendering of images and application techniques for studying molecules in biology.

“The impact of his work on computer graphics was enormous,” said Patrick Hanrahan, a professor at Stanford University and a fellow Turing Prize winner. “Fred Brooks was a thought leader ahead of his time.”

Although his career spanned a wide range of interests, there was a common theme, Henry Fuchs, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a longtime colleague, said in an interview. Whether designing a new family of computers used across the economy or helping biologists discover molecules to develop new drugs, Dr. Fuchs said, Dr. Brooks sees the role of computer scientists as “instrumentalist.”

“Fred’s view,” he said, “is that computer scientists are primarily tool makers who help others do their jobs better.”