Frederick P. Brooks Jr., whose innovative work in computer design and software development helped shape the field of computer science, died Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, NC, at the age of 91.
His death was confirmed by his son Roger, who said Dr. Brooks has been progressively worse since his stroke two years ago.
DR. Brooks has had an expansive career that has included establishing the computer science department at the University of North Carolina and directing influential research in the fields of computer graphics and virtual reality.
However, he is best known as one of the engineering leads of IBM’s 360 computer project in the 1960s. At a time when smaller competitors such as Burroughs, Univac and NCR were on the rise, this was an extremely ambitious undertaking. Fortune magazine described it as a “bet the company” company in an article titled “IBM’s $5,000,000,000 Gamble”.
Up until the 360, each computer model had its own custom hardware design. This required engineers to overhaul their software programs to run on every newly introduced machine.
But IBM promised to do this costly, repetitive work with one of Dr. Brooks, a young engineering star at the company, and a few co-workers. 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 having to rewrite software as customers moved from smaller to larger computers.
The common design across multiple machines was detailed in an article written by Dr. Brooks and his colleagues Gene Amdahl and Gerrit Blaauw with the title “Architecture of the IBM System/360”.
“This was a breakthrough in computer architecture led by Fred Brooks,” said Richard Sites, a computer designer who worked at Dr. Brooks said in an interview.
But there was a problem. The software required to deliver on IBM’s promise of inter-machine compatibility and the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously was not ready, as it proved to be a far greater challenge than anticipated. Operating system software is often described as a computer’s command and control system. The OS/360 was a precursor to Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS, and Google’s Android.
When IBM made the 360 announcement, Dr. Brooks was just 33 and on his way to college. He had agreed to return to North Carolina, where he grew up, and start a computer science department at Chapel Hill. But Thomas Watson Jr., IBM’s president, asked him to stay a year to address the company’s software problems.
Dr. Brooks agreed and finally the OS/360 problems were solved. The 360 project proved to be an enormous success and solidified the company’s dominance in the computer market into the 1980s.
“Fred Brooks was a brilliant scientist who transformed computer science,” Arvind Krishna, IBM chief executive and a computer scientist himself, said in a statement. “We owe him a debt of gratitude 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 took the hard-earned lessons learned from dealing with OS/360 software as the basis for his book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. First published in 1975, it was soon recognized as a whimsical classic that sold well year after year and was routinely cited as gospel by computer scientists.
The tone is witty and self-deprecating, with pithy quotes from Shakespeare and Sophocles and chapter headings such as “Ten Pounds in a Five-Pound Sack” and “Hatching a Catastrophe.” There are practical tips. For example: Organize engineers in small groups on large software projects, which Dr. Brooks called “surgical teams.”
The best-known of his principles was what he called Brooks’ Law: “Adding manpower to a late-stage software project makes it later.” to make a point.
It’s often wiser to overthink things, he suggested, than to add more people. And in software engineering, a profession with artistic and creative elements, workers are not interchangeable units of work.
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 visible to all—have armies of web-connected engineers to spot bugs in the code and recommend fixes. Still, even open-source projects are typically led by a small group of individuals, more surgical team than the wisdom of the crowd.
Frederick Phillips Brooks Jr. was born on April 19, 1931 in Durham, NC, the eldest of three boys. His father was a doctor and his mother, Octavia (Broome) Brooks, was a homemaker.
Dr. Brooks grew up in Greenville and studied physics at Duke University before attending graduate school at Harvard. Computer science departments did not exist at the time, but computers became research tools in physics, mathematics, and engineering departments.
DR. Brooks received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics 1956; his advisor was Howard Aiken, a physicist and computer pioneer. He was a teaching assistant to Kenneth Iverson, an early programming language designer, who taught a course on ‘Automated Data Processing’.
Both industry and science are increasingly using computers. DR. Brooks has had summer jobs at Marathon Oil and North American Aviation, as well as 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 inaugural ceremony. Then, Dr. Brooks recalled in an oral history interview for the Computer History Museum that they went to jobs at IBM together.
During his IBM years, Dr. Brooks became what his son described as a “convinced and committed Christian” after participating in Bible studies led by fellow computer designer Dr. blue w. “I realized that the intellectual difficulties I had with Christianity as a scientist were secondary,” said Dr. Brooks recalled in an interview with the Computer History Museum. He taught Sunday school at a Methodist church in Chapel Hill for over 50 years and served as director and faculty advisor for Christian study and community groups at the university.
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 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
DR. Brooks has received many awards for his achievements, including the 1985 National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the 1991 Turing Award, often referred to as the Nobel Prize in Computer Science.
The grand prizes usually recognized his work in computer design and software development. But during his years in North Carolina, Dr. Brooks also turned to computer graphics and virtual reality, seeing this as an emerging and important area. He led research efforts that experts say included techniques for displaying images quickly and realistically and applications for studying molecules in biology.
“The impact of his work in computer graphics was tremendous,” said Patrick Hanrahan, a Stanford University professor and fellow Turing Award winner. “Fred Brooks was way ahead of his time.”
While his career spanned a range of interests, there was one common theme, Henry Fuchs, a University of North Carolina professor and longtime colleague, said in an interview. Whether it’s designing a new family of computers that will be used across the economy or helping biologists study molecules to create new drugs, Dr. Fox said Dr. Brooks saw the role of computer scientists as “toolsmiths”.
“Fred’s view,” he said, “was that computer scientists are toolmakers primarily to help others do their jobs better.”