Organick, Elliot

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Organick, Elliot

Engineer and Pioneering Computer Scientist

Best remembered for his easy-to-understand textbooks about computers, programming, and operating systems, Elliot Organick was a pioneer computer scientist who was also passionate about making advances in technology simple and easy to understand. According to J. A. N. Lee in Computer Pioneers, one of Organick's most quoted remarks when hearing about new advances in technology was: "This is great stuff, but does it have to be so complicated?"

Organick was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 25, 1925. After high school in Manhattan, he began studies in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1941. He graduated in only three years, going on to work as a chemist for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government's secret effort to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. He returned to academics shortly afterward, however, earning a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1947 and a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1950.

In those days there were no specialized "computer scientists." Instead, mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and other researchers often used computers to perform numeric computations faster and to get more accurate results. Organick was one of those innovators when he used an IBM Card Programmed Calculator to carry out his chemical engineering thermodynamic calculations. He soon became intrigued with using computers to enhance teaching and learning, and by the late 1950s was one of the first true computer scientists.

While Organick worked for the United Gas Pipeline Company from 1950 to 1955, his interest in computers helped advance the development of computer applications in the petroleum industry. For a short time after leaving that job, he worked as a consultant in computer applications. However, on the advice of his doctoral adviser, Organick returned to academia and joined the Computing Center at the University of Houston. Within five years he was its director.

In 1959 the Ford Foundation established a major project to induce the engineering faculty of the University of Michigan to use computers in engineering education and teaching. After a nationwide search, the director of the project invited Organick to return to Ann Arbor as associate director. While in Michigan, Organick was able to convince the National Science Foundation (NSF) that all educators needed to know how to use computers. With NSF funding, he organized several courses in 1960, and taught them to engineering faculty and high school science and math teachers during the summers until 1963.

Since good computer science study materials were not available in the early 1960s, Organick undertook to write some himself, with enduring success. His first, A Fortran Primer, was initially published in 1961 and later revised in 1966. In 1974 he and L. P. Meissner transformed it into the well known Fortran IV. During his stay in Michigan, Organick also explored the Michigan Algorithm Decoder (MAD), which led to his book, The MAD Primer. Although this work was not as widely circulated as the Fortran title, programming language designers of that generation admired it.

Between 1968 and 1969, Organick went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on sabbatical to work on its MAC project. The result of this experience was a textbook on the Multics operating system. In keeping with his reputation as a writer who could explain technical ideas in the computer field clearly and precisely, Organick developed an exceptionally clear description of how the Multics system works.

In 1971 Organick was recruited by the University of Utah as professor of computer science. There, he shaped a ground-breaking undergraduate computer science curriculum. His design was so thorough and farsighted that the program was not restructured until 1985.

By the mid 1970s, Organick had become the leading writer of computer science texts. Computer Science: A First Course, which he wrote with A. I. Forsythe, T. A. Keenan, and W. Stenberg, was an immediate success and was translated into five languages. Programming Language Structures, authored with Forsythe and R. P. Plummer, was distinctive in its application of comparative linguistic analysis to a wide range of then-current programming languages.

As noted in Lee's book, when Organick was asked how he created so many outstanding texts, Organick replied: "I am such a slow learner that once I understand something, I might as well write it down!"

Organick was deeply committed to education and professional service, which led him to take on a variety of leadership positions in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He served six years on the ACM Education Committee and in 1968 was instrumental in founding the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). He was editor of the education section of the Communications of the ACM for two years, and was editor-in-chief of Computing Surveys during its first six years, building its circulation to more than 30,000. In 1985 he received the SIGCSE annual award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education. Organick died of leukemia in Shreveport, Louisiana, on December 21, 1985.

see also Computer Assisted Instruction; Kemeny, John G.; Logo; Mathematics.

Ida M. Flynn


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

Lindstrom, Gary. "Elliot Organick." Communications of the ACM 29, no. 3 (1986): 231.

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