Amdahl, Gene Myron

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Amdahl, Gene Myron

American Computer Designer and Entrepreneur

Gene Myron Amdahl was born November 16, 1922, in Flandreau, South Dakota. He received a bachelor's degree in engineering physics from South Dakota State University in 1948 and a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1952. His major contributions to the field of computer science are in the design of computers and the founding of computer-related companies.

Prior to attending college, Amdahl served two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, learning electronics and taking a computer programming course. This served him well academically and in his later entrepreneurial efforts. Amdahl's doctoral dissertation was on "The Logical Design of an Intermediate Speed Digital Computer." The computer itself was called the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized Computer (WISC). Amdahl's design was implemented by successive classes of students at the University of Wisconsin.

Amdahl worked at IBM from 1952 to 1955 and was a lead designer in the redesign of the IBM 701, which was later marketed as the IBM 704. After determining that he would not be made the manager of the IBM Stretch Project, a project aimed at developing advanced computer technology and a supercomputer at IBM, Amdahl left the company for several years. He returned to IBM in 1960 after working at Ramo Wooldridge and Aeronautic, Inc., and he became a leader in the design of the IBM System/360 series of computers.

Amdahl was made an IBM fellow in 1965, which meant he was able to pursue his own research projects. In 1969 he became the director of IBM's Advanced Computing Systems Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. IBM subsequently closed this laboratory on Amdahl's recommendation, and in 1970 he left IBM and formed the Amdahl Corporation, a mainframe computer manufacturer in direct competition with IBM.

Amdahl computers could run the same software as the IBM series of computers, but they were priced more economically. They were, in a sense, IBM "clones" in the mainframe computer market. A similar phenomenon later occurred in the personal computer market, when several manufacturers "cloned" or imitated the IBM personal computer. The cloning was done on the processors to run the software and on the peripherals as well, creating "plug-to-plug" compatible systems.

The first Amdahl computer was not shipped until 1975, but in subsequent years (19761978), the company was quite competitive, with between one and several hundred million dollars of product shipping per year. In 1979 Amdahl lost control of the company to Japanese investors, Fujitsu, Ltd., who were still running it as of 2002.

Amdahl resigned as chairman of Amdahl Corporation in 1979, becoming chair emeritus, then left the company in 1980. That year he founded the Trilogy Systems Corporation with $230 million in start-up money. His intent was to develop a high performance computing system with large scale integration (several hundred functions on a chip), fault tolerant wafer-scale chips, and a high performance central processing unit (CPU) .

When Trilogy Systems encountered manufacturing problems, Amdahl acquired Elxsi, Ltd. to obtain computer systems, and subsequently became its chairman. In 1987 he founded Andor Systems to develop computers to compete with IBM's smaller mainframes. However, this company, too, suffered manufacturing problems, and IBM came out with its own midsize computer, employing some of the same technology that Andor had developed. Hoping to remain a viable company, Andor turned to the manufacturing of peripheral systems and finally a data backup system, but by the mid-1990s, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy.

In 1996, at the age of seventy-four, Amdahl helped found Commercial Data Servers, a company intended to produce IBM-compatible, PC-based mainframes. By 1998 people and companies worldwide had become concerned about what would happen to their computerized data as computer systems rolled over from the year 1999 to the year 2000. The so-called Y2K problem caused uncertainty because traditionally only two digits had been used to identify the year in many applications, and programmers could not predict what would happen to time-sensitive systems when the year "99," for 1999, was followed by the year "00," for 2000 (not 1900). Commercial Data Servers developed the CDS2000E Enterprise Server to test applications for Year 2000 compliance, and provided it without affecting ongoing operations. It set the computer's clock ahead to simulate the start of 2000 and tested the software for problems. Many companies used this product to test their systems, rewrite programs, and adjust data storage accordingly. Few systems worldwide actually experienced any major Y2K problems. Amdahl eventually retired from Commercial Data Servers.

In 1987 Amdahl received the Eckert-Mauchly Award, bestowed jointly by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society for "outstanding innovations in computer architecture, including pipelining, instruction look-ahead, and cache memory." He also won the Computer Entrepreneur Award from the IEEE Computer Society in 1989, which is awarded to managers and leaders responsible for the growth of some segment of the computer industry whose efforts occurred at least fifteen years before the award and whose effects in the industry are easily recognizable.

see also Generations: Computers; IBM Corporation; Mainframes; Supercomputers.

Roger R. Flynn


Bashe, Charles J., et al. IBM's Early Computers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Lee, J. A. N. Computer Pioneers. Los Alamitos, CA: Computer Society Press, 1995.