Amdahl, Eugene Myron (1922 - 2015)
Son of Norwegian immigrants, Eugene Myron Amdahl was born in Flandreau, a town in South Dakota on 16 November 1922.
He studied engineering. He was an average student, although his performance increased considerably after he took a summer physics course. It was then that he realized that physics was his true vocation. After two years’ service in the Navy during the Second World War, he finished his studies and received a BS in Applied Physics in 1948. He started a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, with a thesis titled “Contributions to the magnetic moments of heavy kernels caused by the spin anti-symmetry and velocity-dependent forces”.
M eanwhile, he started to design computers in his spare time. When the Electrical Engineering Department heard about his hobby, they asked him to build a computer to teach students the foundations of digital computer science. The resulting computer, designed in the summer of 1950, was called WISC (Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized Computer). Amdahl managed to get his work on the design and development of WISC accepted as his PhD thesis. However, the ideas that he had used were so innovative that nobody at the department was qualified enough to assess the quality of his work. On this ground, they had to request help from external experts, and two years later he received the sought-after PhD.
After graduation, he wanted to start his own computer company, but he was unable to raise the necessary capital and started to look for employment. IBM were impressed by the quality of his thesis and immediately took him on. He became the company’s highest paid PhD graduate. His first jobs focused on character recognition and simulation studies to determine if a machine were capable of operating like a human brain. He was then appointed chief engineer of the IBM-704 project, the first large-scale commercial computer with dedicated floating point hardware, which also included the high-level language, called FORTRAN, developed by his colleague John Backus. Although the company estimated that it would sell only six IBM-704 computers, Amdahl thought that they would sell 32, and the machine’s price was set according to this forecast. Finally, IBM sold 140 IBM-704 computers, which was an unprecedented commercial success.
In 1955, Gene Amdahl, John Backus, and others, began to work on the STRETCH project. The goal of the STRETCH project was to build a supercomputer for Los Alamos National Laboratory that was to be 100 times faster than the then fastest machine. Frustrated by the guidelines that set out by IBM’s management, he left the company.
In 1960, he returned to IBM as a chief engineer responsible for the IBM/360 mainframe family architecture. The first IBM System/360 was launched on 7 April 1964 and turned out to be the biggest commercial success in IBM’s history.
In 1967, he stated the now famous Amdahl’s law, which links the performance of a multiprocessor machine with parallelizable code quality and the number of processors in the machine. This law is useful for predicting the performance of a parallel system, such as a cluster.
In 1969, Amdahl was appointed IBM Fellow and Director of the Advanced Computing Systems (ACS) Laboratory in California. Overwhelmed by the bureaucracy, he again left IBM.
He begins, once again, to pursue his childhood dream and treated again to form his own company. In 1970, he founded Amdahl Corporation in California, with the idea of compete against IBM in the mainframe sector.
He launched his first computer, called Amdahl 470 V/6, in 1975. Selling at the same price as the IBM 360/165 ($ 3.5 million at the time), it was four times smaller and four times faster. Although IBM had not taken Amdahl seriously at first, they soon realized that they had underestimated the determination of their former employee. At his commercial zenith, Amdahl won a 22% market share of the mainframe sector.
In 1980, Amdahl left the presidency of his company to found Trilogy Systems in search of new challenges.
In 1987, he resigned and founded Andor Systems, his third company, but this venture ended in bankruptcy.
In 1996, at the age of 74 years, he founded a Norwegian company called Commercial Data Servers, a mainframe and server manufacturer.