Paying Tribute to Computer Science Pioneer Frederick Brooks, Jr.

He helped develop the IBM System/360 and its operating system

3 min read
portrait of an elderly man in a a red tie and blazer with a bookcase in the background
University of North Carolina

Frederick P. Brooks Jr., a prolific computer scientist and longtime professor of computer science, died on 17 November at the age of 91.

While working as a project manager at IBM in the 1960s, the IEEE Life Fellow led the development of the System/360 computer family. It was the first vertically compatible family of mainframe computers. Brooks also developed IBM’s OS/360, the world’s largest software project at the time. He is credited with coining the term computer architecture, which is used to describe how hardware and software are organized to make up a computer system and the operations which guide its function. He wrote The Mythical Man-Month, a book of essays published in 1975 that detailed lessons he learned from challenges he faced while developing the OS/360.

Brooks left IBM in 1964 to found the University of North Carolina’s computer science department in Chapel Hill.

Although he retired from teaching in 2013, Brooks was still active in the university’s research program in virtual environmentsand scientific visualization until 2020.

Breakthroughs at IBM

After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1953 from Duke University, in Durham, N.C., Brooks received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1956 from Harvard. He completed his dissertation—the development of a computer that could do payrolls—under the supervision of computer pioneer Howard Aiken, who had designed IBM’s Harvard Mark I computer.

Brooks joined IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1957. His first assignment was working on the IBM 7030. Known as Stretch, it was the first transistorized supercomputer. Although commercially unsuccessful, Stretch inspired technologies used in inventions such as instruction pipelining and memory interleaving. Brooks also designed Harvest, IBM’s 7030 character-processing auxiliary processor.

His next project was the IBM 8000 series of computers. In 1961 IBM deemed the project a failure and terminated it.

That same year, Brooks was tasked with leading the development of a family of general-purpose systems for both commercial and scientific applications. Before the release of IBM System/360, computer systems were incompatible with each other, even if they were developed by the same manufacturer. Software and peripherals from old systems would not work with new ones, making it costly for customers to upgrade their hardware, according to an IBM article about the technology.

The System/360, released in 1964, contained six processor models with 40 peripherals. The line was named the 360 because it addressed the needs of all types of customers. Within five years of its release, more than 3,000 units were sold, and it generated more than US $100 billion in revenue through the mid-1980s, according to the IBM article.

The system also popularized the concept of a computer upgrade and introduced the industry standard of the 8-bit byte, for which Brooks was responsible. The 8-bit byte enabled a computer to run software that produced both upper- and lower-case characters.

Due to the success of the system, Brooks was appointed lead developer of the 360 family of operating systems. The OS/360 was the forerunner of Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s iOS, and Google’s Android software systems.

When Brooks joined the University of North Carolina, he was its first professor of computer science. He served as department chair for 20 years, and he taught and conducted research at the university for more than 50 years. His research focused mainly on interactive computer graphics and virtual reality.

“Many in the department and beyond appreciated the fact that in a world full of academic competition and research silos, Brooks fostered a departmental culture of open collaboration and respect,” says Mary C. Whitton, a retired University of North Carolina research professor. The IEEE life senior member worked closely with Brooks for more than two decades.

The Turing Award and the National Medal of Technology

Brooks was honored multiple times for his pioneering work. He was awarded the 1993 IEEE John von Neumann Medal and received two awards from the IEEE Computer Society: the 1980 Women of ENIAC Computer Pioneer Award and the 1970 W. Wallace McDowell Award.

He received the 1999 A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, known as the Nobel Prize of computing. He was honored for “landmark contributions to computer architecture, operating systems, and software engineering.”

Brooks also received the 1985 U.S. National Medal of Technology alongside his IBM colleagues Bob Evans and Erich Bloch for the development of System/360. The award was given to them by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

The Conversation (1)
Joshua Stern21 Dec, 2022

"Mythical Man-Month" may still be the best book ever written on software development. It may not be 100% correct or current, as development technologies are wildly better now, but it lays out the basic questions in a way that seems almost forgotten. At least it makes us long for a lot more progress than we've actually seen in fifty years!

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.