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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

How Charles Bachman Invented the DBMS, a Foundation of Our Digital World


How Charles Bachman Invented the DBMS, a Foundation of Our Digital World, illustration

This image, from a 1962 internal General Electric document, conveyed the idea of random access storage using a set of "pigeon holes" in which data could be placed.

Credit: Charles W. Bachman and the Charles Babbage Institute

Fifty-three years ago a small team working to automate the business processes of the General Electric Company built the first database management system. The Integrated Data Store—IDS—was designed by Charles W. Bachman, who won the ACM's 1973 A.M. Turing Award for the accomplishment. Before General Electric, he had spent 10 years working in engineering, finance, production, and data processing for the Dow Chemical Company. He was the first ACM A.M. Turing Award winner without a Ph.D., the first with a background in engineering rather than science, and the first to spend his entire career in industry rather than academia.

Some stories, such as the work of Babbage and Lovelace, the creation of the first electronic computers, and the emergence of the personal computer industry have been told to the public again and again. They appear in popular books, such as Walter Isaacson's recent The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, and in museum exhibits on computing and innovation. In contrast, perhaps because database management systems are rarely experienced directly by the public, database history has been largely neglected. For example, the index of Isaacson's book does not include entries for "database" or for any of the four people to have won Turing Awards in this area: Charles W. Bachman and Edgar F. Codd (1981), James Gray (1988), or Michael Stonebraker (2014).


 

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