Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software engineering helped shape the field of computer science, died Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 91. Her death was confirmed by her son Roger, who Dr Brooks said had been in declining health since suffering a stroke two years ago. The New York Times reports: 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 “Architecture of the IBM System/360.” “It was a breakthrough in computer architecture led by Fred Brooks,” says 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 in the 1980s, cementing the company’s dominance in the computer market. “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.”
Dr. Brooks published a book in 1975, “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” It was “an uncanny classic, selling briskly for years and routinely cited as gospel by computer scientists,” the Times reported.