Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 23
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  • GERRIT A. BLAAUW 1924-2018

    BY FREDERICK P. BROOKS JR.

    GERRIT ANNE BLAAUW, computer science professor emeritus at the Universiteit Twente, died March 21, 2018, at age 93. He was born July 17, 1924, in the Hague, Netherlands, to Gerard Cornelis Blaauw and Johanna Catherina van Marle.

    In 1944–45 he and a peer were recruited into the Dutch underground news network. Because of the great danger and vital importance of the radio news network, Gerry’s partner’s family was moved to the third floor of a house with an empty second floor and a good hiding place. He joined them and, with his buddy, listened to BBC-Holland on a 50 volt radio, powered by 50 empty mustard jars with tinfoil, salt water, and the cores of old flashlight batteries, connected in series. They typed the news and made copies that were distributed clandestinely by girls, who could walk about town without fear of being drafted. This continued through April 1945.

    Gerry’s interest in computers was triggered by a 1944 article about Howard H. Aiken’s Harvard-IBM Mark I. He received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Delft University of Technology just after the war and then got a BS in electrical entineering at Lafayette College before going on to study computer engineering at Harvard (MS, 1949; PhD, 1952), with Aiken as his advisor. Aiken’s Computation Laboratory built a series of four computers funded principally by the US Navy. Blaauw made important contributions to the Harvard Mark IV architecture and developed the magnetic core logical circuits.

    His Fulbright Fellowship required Blaauw to return to the Netherlands, where he joined the Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam and was a designer/builder of the ARRA II, a very reliable machine for the time. Then he designed the center’s FERTA for Fokker, a computer used for designing the very popular Fokker Friendship airplane.

    In 1957 he joined the IBM Research Laboratory in Poughkeepsie, New York, as one of the architects of the IBM 7030 STRETCH supercomputer, the company’s first computer to use transistor technology. He was primarily responsible for the highly innovative indexing system and for the variable-field-length arithmetic subsystem, for which he received an important patent.

    During this time he formulated his most important methodological contribution: the clear distinctions among the design phases of architecture, implementation, and realization. This methodical design structure works for designs in many media. For computers, the architecture phase culminates in the programming manual, the implementation phase produces the complete logical equations, and realization makes the actual running machine.

    In 1960 he became the principal architect for the IBM 8000 series. Although it was never produced—it was superseded by the IBM System/360 integrated-circuit “mainframe” computer family—Blaauw’s memory paging system was an important invention in the IBM 8106.

    In 1961–65, as one of the three chief architects of the S/360, he made many contributions. By far the most important was his strong, reasoned, persistent, and successful advocacy, against Gene Amdahl, his boss, for changing the standard IBM byte size from 6 to 8 bits. This change, ’though expensive (about $100 million), enabled the routine use of lowercase characters and thus word processing applications and whole new ­markets for computers. It was universally adopted in the industry.

    Blaauw personally wrote the Principles of Operation architectural definition for the System/360, apart from the I/O section. This work embodied not only the many decisions debated by the substantial architectural team but countless micro­decisions. Blaauw ensured the consistency that gives a computer architecture conceptual integrity. Another important invention was the “Blaauw box,” a lookaside register for expediting virtual memory in the S/360 Model 67 and successors.

    In 1965 Blaauw accepted an invitation to join the Twente Technical University in Enschede, Netherlands, as professor of digital technique and cofounder of the Department of Informatics. He taught there until his retirement in 1989.

    His books include Digital System Implementation (Prentice-Hall, 1976) and the coauthored Computer Architecture: Concepts and Facilities (Addison-Wesley, 1997).

    He was elected in 1982 to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences and to the NAE, as a foreign associate, in 1998.

    Gerry became a Christian while in college. He was a deep believer whose life showed it. He touched many lives over many years as faculty advisor for the Netherlands branch of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

    His wife Paula (née Volckera Albarda) predeceased him in 2004. They are survived by their children Carol Damant-Blaauw (Southampton, UK), Grace Lines-Blaauw (Kenilworth, UK), Claire IJselhof-Blaauw (Bolsward, Netherlands), David Blaauw (Ann Arbor), Esther Weggeman-Blaauw (Utrecht), and Maria Postma-Blaauw (Titz, Germany); and 19 grandchildren.

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