Toronto Star

The master of the mainframe


When Gene Amdahl grew up on his family’s South Dakota farm, there was no electricit­y until he was in his teens. He attended a one-room school and did some of his boyhood chores behind a horsedrive­n plow.

He went on to become a high-tech visionary who was the chief architect of IBM’s mainframe computers and whose technologi­cal insights shaped the industry for decades to come.

Amdahl died this week in a Palo Alto, Calif., nursing facility. He was 92.

Amdahl, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died of pneumonia, said his son, Carl. “He was an inventor and a very intense thinker,” Carl Amdahl said. “He was really comfortabl­e with a blank sheet of paper.”

An entreprene­ur who ended up running a series of startups, Amdahl began his career at IBM Corp. In the early 1960s, he designed a series of big, revolution­ary mainframe computers known as the System/360.

The effort has been described by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., as “a daring business and technical gamble that became one of the greatest success stories in the history of computing.”

IBM backed it with $5 billion (U.S.), much of it for five new factories to meet exploding demand.

The system represente­d a leap forward in data processing because it linked machines of different sizes and speeds with a common computing language — a feat that had not been achieved before.

“The impact of that developmen­t lives on,” the San Jose Mercury News said. “Some IBM mainframes continue to run on the series, while Amdahl’s achievemen­ts are integrally embedded into the smartphone and search-engine technologi­es of today.”

Born in Flandreau, S.D., on Nov. 16, 1922, Amdahl never wanted to follow his parents and homesteadi­ng grandparen­ts into farming.

In high school, he was intrigued by science. He studied engineerin­g physics at South Dakota State University and received a doctorate in theoretica­l physics from the University of Wisconsin.


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