Erich Bloch, BS '52, Who Helped Develop IBM Mainframe, Dies at 91

The EE Alumnus also served as Director of the National Science Foundation.

By Sam Roberts

Erich Bloch, who helped develop the IBM mainframe computer that, more than any other machine, propelled the world into the digital age, and who then shepherded the internet into broader use as director of the National Science Foundation, died on Nov. 25 in Washington. He was 91.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Rebecca Rosen, said.

Mr. Bloch became a computer processing pioneer after arriving in the United States in 1948 as a Jewish refugee who had been orphaned by the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. He went to work for IBM four years later.

In 1964, he made his signal achievement at the company when he transformed computing by introducing the System/360, the foundation for the modern concept of an operating system that would host a variety of computer programs.

The system enabled IBM to dominate the computer market for a quarter-century and provided the technology that now lets consumers bypass bank tellers with A.T.M.s and make travel reservations from home.

After 32 years at IBM, Mr. Bloch was appointed director of the National Science Foundation by President Ronald Reagan. In his six-year term, from 1984 to 1990, he oversaw the transition of the foundation’s early-generation digital network into a wider system that became today’s internet.

He also fostered closer collaboration between industry and American universities and helped establish engineering research centers on their campuses as the foundation’s annual budget grew to $3 billion.

Mr. Bloch was the foundation’s first director without a doctorate and the first from the business world rather than academia. To the dismay of some critics, his agenda combined basic research, which they championed, with product innovation, and made the nation’s economic competitiveness a priority.

The shift from pure to practical research represented “the first serious advance in science policy since 1950,” Michael M. Crow, a specialist on science policy and now the president of Arizona State University, wrote in 1994. .

On Mr. Bloch’s 90th birthday, Donald V. Budinger, the chairman of Science Foundation Arizona, said of him: “He stands for mustering the will to make bold investments, to stay relentless in the effort to improve the human condition. Think about that. That’s the primary purpose of research.”

Mr. Bloch joined IBM right after graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1952 with a degree in electrical engineering, hired to work in the company’s laboratory in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. As an undergraduate, he worked in a chemical plant to help pay for his education.

“When I started at IBM, I was looked at as a screwball: ‘Yeah, he wants to play around with computers,’ ” Mr. Bloch said last year in an interview with AtBuffalo, the alumni magazine of the State University of New York at Buffalo, as the university is now known.

In the 1950s, he developed the first ferrite-core memory storage units to be used in computers commercially and worked on the IBM 7030, known as Stretch, the first transistorized supercomputer.

“Asked what job each of us had, my answer was very simple and very direct,” Mr. Bloch said in 2002. “Getting that sucker working.”

But Stretch, then the world’s fastest computer, was not fast enough for Bob O. Evans, a computer scientist. He persuaded IBM to gamble $5 billion on a new class of mainframe computers, called System/360, in the early 1960s, and he led the team that produced it.

Mr. Bloch’s role was to oversee the development of Solid Logic Technology — half-inch ceramic modules for the microelectronic circuitry that provided the System/360 with superior power, speed and memory, all of which would become fundamental to computing.

When the 360 — named to evoke all points of the compass — was unveiled in 1964, Thomas J. Watson, the chairman of IBM, called it the most important product announcement in the company’s history.

In 1985, President Reagan awarded Mr. Bloch, Mr. Evans and Frederick P. Brooks, all from IBM, the first National Technology Medal for revolutionizing data processing through their contributions to the development of the System/360.

They were honored again in 2004 by the Computer History Museum in San Jose, Calif., whose executive director, John Toole, said, “Forty years later, many of the attributes born on the System/360 remain fundamental aspects of computing.”

Mr. Bloch was born on Jan. 9, 1925, in Sulzburg, Germany, to Joseph Bloch, a businessman, and the former Toni Baum. In 1939, his parents sent him to Switzerland, where he lived in a home for refugees and studied at the Federal Polytechnic Institute. His parents perished in concentration camps during the war.

Once he joined IBM, Mr. Bloch began climbing the corporate ranks, becoming director of the Poughkeepsie laboratory in 1968, a vice president of the System Products Division in 1976 and an IBM vice president in 1981. He retired when he joined the National Science Foundation in 1984.

His wife, the former Renee Stern, died in 2004. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Bloch said that though math was his favorite subject in school, his parents never encouraged him to pursue it as a career, telling him, as he put it, “In mathematics you don’t earn a living.” He realized early on, however, that computers held enormous potential.

“It was very clear that electronics coupled with computers would be a major development that was required in order to move forward,” he said. “It was more than an end in itself.”

He had a computer at home and another at work and carried a smartphone, he said in the AtBuffalo interview last year. But he cautioned, “You have to make sure your technology doesn’t take more time to keep up with than to actually use.”

Published by The New York Times November 30, 2016 This content is archived.