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Erich Bloch, IBM Pioneer Who Later Led National Science Foundation, Dies at 91


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Bloch displaying a thermal conduction module, circa 1980.

Former U.S. National Science Foundation director Erich Bloch, who died Nov. 25.

Credit: IBM

Erich Bloch, an electrical engineer who helped usher in the era of modern computing during three decades with IBM, and who later directed hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward scientific and technological innovation as director of the National Science Foundation in the 1980s, died Nov. 25 at his home in Washington. He was 91.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Rebecca Rosen.

The only child in a German-Jewish family, Bloch was orphaned during the Holocaust, survived the war years in Switzerland at a home for young refugees, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. He put himself through night school while pumping gas and cleaning laboratory equipment.

In 1952, he joined IBM in New York, where he established himself as a preeminent engineer in computing — and where he sharpened a competitive streak that he took to the sometimes fusty halls of government. As NSF director from 1984 to 1990, Bloch was credited with transforming the agency from a benefactor mainly of pure research into an engine of practical advancement.

He “changed NSF’s image,” Science magazine writers Joseph Palca and Eliot Marshall observed when Bloch left office, “from that of a mother hen for a brood of academic scientists to an agency with a plan for improving the nation.”

Bloch was the first NSF director to come from a business rather than academic background and the first without a doctoral degree. His qualifications lay in his achievements at IBM, where he helped mastermind revolutionary developments in computing.

He was chief engineer of the company’s “Stretch” supercomputer, so named because it stretched what were then the limits of computing. Introduced in 1961 with a $10 million price tag, it was used initially by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Security Agency and was the most powerful computer at the time.

Later that decade, Bloch helped develop the IBM System/360, a family of models that are the ancestors of today’s mainframes. Fred Brooks, one of two IBM colleagues who shared with Bloch a 1985 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, credited Mr. Bloch with managing the development of the computer’s processing chips, called Solid Logic Technology.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., who led IBM at the time, is widely regarded as having “bet the company” on Mr. Bloch, his colleagues and the System/360 project, which totaled $5 billion — twice the company’s annual revenue. It became, according to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., the “most successful computer system of all time.”

 

From The Washington Post
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