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

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

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

Dr. Brooks had an extensive career that included founding the Department of Computer Science 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 computing project in the 1960s. At a time when smaller rivals like Burroughs, Univac and NCR were making inroads, he was a extremely ambitious undertaking. Fortune magazine, in an article titled “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Bet”, described it as a “bet on the business” company.

Until the 360, each computer model had its own bespoke hardware design. This required engineers to revise their software programs to work on each new machine introduced.

But IBM has promised to eliminate this costly and repetitive work with an approach championed by Dr. 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 the software, as customers moved from smaller computers to larger computers.

The shared design across multiple machines was described in an article by Dr. Brooks and colleagues Gene Amdahl and Gerrit Blaauw, titled “Architecture of the IBM System/360”.

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

But there was a problem. The software needed to fulfill IBM’s promise of compatibility between machines and the ability to run multiple programs at once was not ready, as it proved to be a much more difficult challenge than expected. Operating system software is often described as the command and control system of a computer. OS/360 was a precursor to Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

At the time IBM made the 360 ​​announcement, Dr. Brooks was only 33 and heading into academia. He had agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and set up a computer science department in Chapel Hill. But Thomas Watson Jr., IBM’s chairman, asked him to stay on for another year to tackle the company’s software problems.

Dr. Brooks agreed, and eventually the OS/360 issues were resolved. Project 360 proved to be a huge success, cementing the company’s dominance in the computing market in the 1980s.

“Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who changed computing,” Arvind Krishna, IBM’s chief executive and computer scientist himself, said in a statement. “We are indebted to him for his pioneering contributions to the industry.”

After founding the computer science department at the University of North Carolina, he served as its chairman for 20 years.

Dr. Brooks took the hard-earned lessons of struggling with OS/360 software as grist for his book “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.” First published in 1975, it quickly became an offbeat classic, selling out fast year after year and regularly cited as gospel by computer scientists.

Dr. Brooks’ book “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering”, first published in 1975, has become an original classic, selling rapidly year after year and regularly cited as gospel by computer scientists.

The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with pithy quotes from Shakespeare and Sophocles and chapter headings like “Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Sack” and “Hatching a Catastrophe.” There are handy tips along the way. For example: organize engineers working on large software projects into small groups, which Dr. Brooks calls “surgical teams.”

The best known of his principles was what he called Brooks’ Law: “Adding labor to a late software project makes it later.” Dr. Brooks himself admitted that he was “oversimplifying”, but he was exaggerating to make a point.

It’s often smarter to redesign things, he suggested, than to add more people. And in software engineering, a profession with elements of art and creativity, workers are not interchangeable units of work.

In the age of the Internet, some software developers have suggested that Brooks’ Law no longer applies. Large open source software projects – so named because the underlying “source” code is open to everyone – have armies of engineers connected to the Internet to spot flaws in the code and recommend fixes. Yet even open source projects are usually governed by a small group of individuals, more a surgical team than the wisdom of the crowd.

Frederick Phillips Brooks Jr. was born April 19, 1931, in Durham, North Carolina, the oldest of three boys. Her father was a doctor and her mother, Octavia (Broome) Brooks, was a homemaker.

Dr. Brooks grew up in Greenville and majored in physics at Duke University before continuing his graduate studies at Harvard. There were no computer science departments at the time, but computers were becoming research tools in physics, mathematics, and engineering departments.

Dr. Brooks earned his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics in 1956; his adviser was Howard Aiken, physicist and computer pioneer. He was a teaching assistant for Kenneth Iverson, one of the first designers of programming languages, who taught a course on “automatic data processing”.

Both industry and academia were increasingly adopting computers. Dr. Brooks held summer jobs with Marathon Oil and North American Aviation, as well as 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 took off together to work at IBM.

During his years at IBM, Dr. Brooks became what his son described as “a staunch and committed Christian” after attending Bible study sessions led by his colleague and fellow computer designer, Dr. Blaauw. “I came to see that the intellectual difficulties I had as a scientist with Christianity were secondary,” Dr. 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 academic advisor to Christian study and scholarship groups at the university.

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

Dr. Brooks has received numerous awards for his achievements, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985 and the Turing Prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize in Computing, in 1991.

Major awards usually cited his work in computer design and software engineering. But during his years in North Carolina, Dr. Brooks also turned to computer graphics and virtual reality, seeing it as an emerging and important field. He led research efforts that experts say included techniques for the rapid and realistic presentation of images and applications for the study of molecules in biology.

“The impact of his work in computer graphics has been enormous,” said Patrick Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and Turing Award winner. “Fred Brooks was a thought leader well ahead of his time.”

While her career spanned a range of interests, there was a common theme, Henry Fuchs, a University of North Carolina professor and longtime colleague, said in an interview. Whether designing a new family of computers used across the economy or helping biologists explore molecules to develop new drugs, Dr. Fuchs said, Dr. Brooks considered the role of computer scientists as “tool smiths”.

“Fred’s perspective,” he said, “was that computer scientists are primarily builders of tools to help others do their jobs better.”

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