Remembering a Trailblazer: Gene Amdahl, 1922-2015

Gene Amdahl
Picture courtesy of Pkivolowitz at English Wikipedia

By Dan O’Brien

It’s hard to believe that the father of the mainframe grew up without electricity. But until he was a freshman in high school, Gene Amdahl’s family’s farm in South Dakota didn’t have any power. But he certainly made up for lost time while earning his PhD at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he wrote a physics thesis that was so advanced that professors needed third-party specialists to review it. That thesis laid out the design for what became not only the first computer at Madison, but also in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Any look back at 2015 wouldn’t be complete without a reflection on the life of Amdahl, who died in Palo Alto, California, in November. He was 92.

IBM hired Amdahl in 1952, straight out of his doctoral program. During his first stint at the company, he served as chief architect on the 704 mainframe, which was used for scientific calculations. He left IBM in 1955 and returned in 1960. Shortly thereafter, he began designing System 360, supported by a $5 billion, multiyear investment from IBM—twice its annual revenue at the time. For the first time, computers with different processing speeds and powers functioned with a uniform language. The Computer History Museum calls it “one of the greatest success stories in the history of computing.”

As Stanford University computer scientist Michael J. Flynn told the New York Times, the development “set the design philosophy for computers for the next 50 years, and to this day it’s still out there, which is incredible.”

Amdahl was named an IBM Fellow in 1965 before leaving IBM for good in 1970 to found the rival Amdahl Corporation. There, he designed his own computer, which was faster and cheaper than IBM’s machines, and eventually secured a 22 percent market share. (Fujitsu eventually bought the company.)

To read Amdahl’s life story in his own words, check out the wonderful oral history he shared with Arthur L. Norberg for the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. Over the course of three interviews between 1986 and 1989, Amdahl spoke about his childhood in South Dakota, his work with IBM, and his process for designing computers.

Amdahl is survived by his wife, Marian, one son and two daughters, and five grandchildren.

Please join SHARE in celebrating the life of this remarkable man whose work is the very reason why our organization exists. Leave your remembrances and tributes in the comments.

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