Gene Amdahl, IBM Designer Who Founded Rival, Dies at 92

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Gene Amdahl
Gene Amdahl. Source: Computer History Museum

Gene Amdahl, who helped IBM usher in general-purpose computers in the 1960s and challenged the company’s dominance a decade later with his eponymous machines, has died. He was 92.

He died on Nov. 10 at Vi at Palo Alto, a continuing care retirement community in Palo Alto, California, his wife Marian Amdahl said in a telephone interview. The cause was pneumonia, and he had Alzheimer’s disease for about five years.

Amdahl shepherded the design of the IBM Series/360, the first computer system not built for a specific purpose and one that offered modularity, interoperability -- software made for one machine could run on another -- and the use of cheaper third-party peripherals. Announced in 1964, it made IBM the king of mainframes, closet-sized data crunchers, by expanding the market to everyday businesses such as airlines and carmakers from a user base limited to government offices and universities.

“That architecture has endured for 50 years,” Mike Chuba, an analyst who has followed the industry for more than three decades at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc., said in a 2014 telephone interview. “Most credit-card transactions will go through a mainframe at some point.”

Amdahl improved that design and took on Big Blue by focusing on high-end customers. His machines, typically colored red, were essentially IBM clones that could be interchanged with the bigger company’s products. A price war followed and Amdahl Corp.’s founder left in 1979, about four years after selling its first device.

New Era

Bigger changes were near for the industry. International Business Machines Corp., based in Armonk, New York, introduced its personal computer in 1981.

Gene Myron Amdahl was born on Nov. 16, 1922, in Flandreau, South Dakota. He was the fourth of five children of Anton Amdahl and the former Ingeborg Brendsel, both offspring of Scandinavian homesteaders. The future computer pioneer didn’t have electricity at home until he was in high school, he said, according to an oral history published by the University of Minnesota.

He started college at what is now South Dakota State University in 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was bombed. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he received training in electronics. Discharged from the military two years later, he married Marian Quissell, who grew up four miles from his childhood home. He returned to South Dakota State in 1947 and graduated the following year with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics.

Doctoral Thesis

A graduate program in theoretical physics brought Amdahl to the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1948. He started thinking about building one of the first digital computers for large-scale calculations after he found a desk calculator and slide rule inadequate to solve a problem he was tackling that involved nuclear particles.

Amdahl’s Ph.D. thesis, which laid out the design of one of the first computers, was too complex to be graded at the school and was sent for evaluation to the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. In 1952, he received a doctorate, which also brought a job offer from IBM.

Working at IBM’s Poughkeepsie, New York, office, Amdahl was the main designer for the IBM 704, a mainframe built for engineering and scientific work. He left in 1955, only to be wooed to return for a rare second stint in 1960.

IBM spent $5 billion over four years on the 360 system at a time when it had $2.5 billion in annual revenue. Designed with new circuitry and memory management, it was cheaper to make and replaced IBM’s entire product line. Amdahl managed the architecture of the 360, which became the company’s most profitable product.

Amdahl’s Law

In 1965, Amdahl was made an IBM Fellow, free to pursue his own projects. Four years later, he laid out the physical limitations of speeding-up computers that came to be known as Amdahl’s law.

He left IBM again in 1970 after disagreements about a plan he devised to build a supercomputer; IBM said it wouldn’t be profitable.

With funding help from Japan’s Fujitsu Ltd., he formed Amdahl Corp., located in Sunnyvale, California, whose first product was more powerful and smaller than IBM’s devices. The Amdahl computer, first sold in 1975, was cooled by air, not by water as was the norm then, and used a bigger-than-usual chip, which made its design less complex. The company also benefited from IBM’s antitrust agreement with the U.S. government that required the computer maker to license some of its mainframe technology.

Price War

Orders rolled in from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Ford Motor Co. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Soon Amdahl’s company gained 22 percent of the high-end mainframe market, he said. IBM responded with a faster machine and cut prices by 30 percent.

“I figured they were mowing grass at the ground level,” Amdahl said in a 2011 Computer History Museum video.

In 1979, he left the company. About two decades later, Fujitsu paid about $850 million for the 58 percent of Amdahl Corp. that it didn’t already own.

Amdahl continued his quest to challenge IBM by designing advanced supercomputers, forming Trilogy Systems Corp., in Cupertino, California. The challenge was too costly, however, and Amdahl gave up on supercomputers in 1984, four years after founding the company with his son, Carlton. The company shifted its focus to making the giant silicon wafers for the most powerful machines.

In addition to his wife and son Carlton, survivors include two daughters, Andrea, and Beth, who is known by her middle name, Delaine. The couple had five grandchildren.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the name of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.)

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