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Computing Pioneer Herbert Grosch, Dead at 91

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Herb Grosch

Herb Grosch in 1975.

Credit: Columbia University

Herbert R.J. Grosch, a computing pioneer who served as ACM president from 1976-1978, died on January 18 at the age of 91.

Grosch is best known for discovering the relationship between speed and cost in the early 1950s; the resulting Grosch's Law became the basis for the aphorism, "economy is the square root of speed."

Born in Canada on September 13, 1918, Grosch moved to the United States and received a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1942. He was hired by IBM in 1945 to do backup calculations for The Manhattan Project. Grosch often quipped he was the second scientist hired at IBM and the first with facial hair at a time when beards were a corporate taboo. He would later become the first manager of IBM's space program. Grosch also worked on early computers at General Electric and on Project Whirlwind at MIT. In addition, he served as director of the U.S. Bureau of Standards Institute charged with improving the effectiveness of government information processing. In later years he lived and worked in Europe as a consultant for corporations worldwide.


Grosch joined ACM in 1947, becoming one of its earliest members. He served on the ACM Council for 19 years, from 1968-1987, where he was known for his frankness as well as his dedication. He was elected vice president in 1974, and in 1976 he was elected president of the Association by membership petition. Named an ACM Fellow in 1995, his citation reads: "A computer pioneer who managed important space and technology projects, Grosch is respected for discovering and describing the relationship between speed and the cost of computers."


From his 1991 autobiography, Computer: Bit Slices from a Life, Grosch recalled the vivid, exciting, and "wonderfully human" people he met throughout his career, some famous like Thomas J. Watson (Sr. and Jr.), John von Neumann, and Gene Amdahl, as well as many others from which he drew inspiration, particularly fellow astronomers Leslie J. Comrie and Wallace Eckert. "Think of my magnificently complicated life as a huge multi-dimensional data bank . . . millions and millions of bytes," he wrote. "Slice it along the time axis and you have histories: big computers, software, the evolution of standards. Slice it another way and you have applications: science, or banking, or air defense; another, and you have organizations."




It was my pleasure to meet and work with Herb Grosch. He was a very able man and a Great Speaker. Thanks to him, I was able to learn from the likes of Grace Hopper and Ken Olsen. Shall miss him. I am a copule of genrations younger than Herb when he passed away but certianly in the wide circle of his old friends - JOSHI.


Thanks to Herb for the vivid description he gave of our Cousin the late Carl D. Southard! "Bit Slices of a Life" was a great read -- thank you to Columbia University for placing it online.
Also read Herb's 1970 oral history about his days at IBM & another story about Carl. He said that Carl could just "look" at a machine & solve the problem without doing any testing.
We would never have known about Carl's unique ability without reading Herb's account! Thanks! Mjo

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