Remembering Erich Bloch (January 9, 1925–November 25, 2016)

 Gordon Bell   December 13, 2016  Remarkable People  0

Erich Bloch (January 9, 1925–November 25, 2016)

Though Erich Bloch was less visible to most of the computing community, his contributions most likely impacted your life. As a pioneer who made his first contribution as the project engineer on the legendary IBM Stretch and who was responsible for manufacturing the IBM System/360, his work changed the fortunes of IBM to make it the world leader in computing. As a colleague, friend, and former boss, I saw his impact on computing, education, engineering, and scientific research and technology policies. He was also important to the Computer History Museum (CHM) as a Museum Fellow and as an early director of CHM’s predecessor institution, The Computer Museum (TCM). I’m happy to share this reminiscence of one of computing’s giants.

Erich was well known and admired as the project engineer for the IBM Stretch, one of the earliest computers to establish the “supercomputer” class. Allen Newell and I published his article, “The Engineering Design of the Stretch Computer,” from the 1959 Proceedings of the Eastern Joint Computer Conference in our book, Computer Structures.

Enrich Bloch was the project engineer on the legendary IBM Stretch and was responsible for manufacturing the IBM System/360.

As a vice president also in charge of education at IBM, he worked with Intel’s Bob Noyce to recruit companies to establish the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC)—a nonprofit entity for supporting university research and collaboration—to balance Japan’s MITI (Ministry of Industry and Trade) support of the country’s successful CMOS integrated circuit program. Erich was SRC’s founding chairman in 1981–1982, and his leadership ability included building consensus and defining action among diverse groups. SRC later included the Austin laboratory, which Noyce eventually ran. I was fortunate to be part of the group that proposed SRC. In the last meeting when the plan was established, Erich was prescient: he led us through a 2- to 3-hour discussion and then, as he projected his final, previously prepared slides, it summarized the long discussion we had just had, the alternatives discussed, and the direction to which we had just agreed!

Continuing Erich’s legacy today, 35 years later, former Intel board chairman Craig Barrett says this of SRC: “The SRC model is all about synergy. It brings together individual industry competitors to work jointly for the benefit of all.”

Erich’s association with SRC was fortuitous in many ways that followed. In 1984 President Reagan named Erich director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). As director of NSF Erich succeeded in keeping NSF alive and eventually doubled its budget. During this period, the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate was formed (where I became assistant director) and NSF funded the National Research and Education Network (NREN) that morphed into the internet. Erich transformed NSF a great deal to include engineering in its culture, along with the first “Centers” program to do large-scale interdisciplinary science. He also established a very open culture with the first government 360 critique/evaluation of everyone in the NSF organization. He established distributed and interdisciplinary centers for technical excellence.

Through this introduction, he became a board member of The Computer Museum and an important liaison with IBM on TCM’s behalf. In 1983, after The Digital Computer Museum moved from a Digital Equipment Corporation building to its Boston site, Erich joined the board of directors. As an IBMer, Erich didn’t feel he could join The “Digital” Computer Museum. He convinced me that while The Digital Computer Museum name was clever, it would inhibit support from other companies, so we dropped “Digital” in 1984. (One of the museum’s interns suggested instead that Digital Equipment Corporation should change its name—a suggestion that Ken Olsen vetoed.)

IBM 360 SLT module, 1965
Bloch worked at IBM from 1952 to 1981 in a variety of critical technology management roles, including overseeing the difficult manufacturing challenges of IBM’s groundbreaking System/360 family of mainframe computers in the 1960s. Bloch’s other positions at IBM included engineering manager of the Stretch supercomputer system, head of the Solid Logic Technology (System/360) program.

Erich remained with the museum as a director, trustee (ca. 1989), and overseer through 1998 as TCM came to Mountain View. Erich, along with Bob O. Evans, responsible for the IBM System/360 and Lewis Branscomb, chief scientist, also supported IBM’s participation. IBM support included being able to get a replica of the Hollerith tabulator and several calculator models from Roberto Guatelli, the model maker for IBM exhibits.

In 2004 Erich Bloch became a Fellow of the Computer History Museum “For engineering management of the IBM Stretch supercomputer, and of the Solid Logic Technology used in the IBM System/360 that revolutionized the computer industry.” These two accomplishments at IBM were enough to gain CHM Fellowship, however, Extraordinary Fellow, is better.

As someone who came right to the point, an IBMer once told me Erich was regarded as not “customer ready”; that is, he lacked the IBM marketing patina—hence not on the CEO track— but he was a “god” on the technical side.

I will miss Erich’s wisdom.


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Gordon Bell is a Researcher Emeritus at Microsoft working on lifelogging. He spent 23 years at Digital Equipment Corporation as vice president of R&D; while there, he was responsible for the first mini- and timesharing computers and led the development of DEC's highly-successful VAX architecture. From 1966-1972 he was a professor of Computer Science and ...