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Erich Bloch, IBM mainframe pioneer, dies at 91

Mainframe computers he helped to develop ushered in the modern computing era.

Erich Bloch was a pioneer in IBM mainframe development.

Erich Bloch, who helped develop the IBM mainframe that changed the face of computing, has died. He was 91.

Bloch died November 25 in Washington from complications of Alzheimer's disease, his daughter, Rebecca Rosen, told the Washington Post.

The mainframe computers Bloch helped to develop ushered in the modern computing era, providing a cornerstone that allows us to perform a variety of tasks on the internet, including shopping, banking and making airline reservations, among many others.

Bloch was born on January 9, 1925, in Sulzburg, Germany, and immigrated to the US in 1948 after being orphaned during the Holocaust. He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Buffalo while working days as a research assistant in a laboratory and taking classes at night.

In the mid-1950s, Bloch contributed to the development of the IBM 7030, a supercomputer popularly known as "Stretch" that could perform 100 billion computations a day and handle half a million instructions per second. It was about 30 to 40 times faster than other systems, but IBM discontinued the Stretch after shipping only nine systems to quell charges that it exerted monopoly control over the computer market.

The Stretch paved the way for the development of IBM's System/360, developed in part by Bloch and the late Bob Evans. The 360 name was chosen for the system because its software architecture was meant to address all possible customer needs. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., dubbed the s/360 the "most successful computer system of all time."

IBM's then-CEO, Thomas Watson Jr., is said to have "bet the company" on development of the S/360, the ancestor to today's mainframes. IBM invested $5 billion in the project at a time when the company's annual revenue came to $3.2 billion.

Those systems laid the groundwork for the modern PC, which have succeeded by miniaturizing much of the technology he and his colleagues created, Bloch said at the museum in 2004.

"The first 30 years of computing is what most of the work going on today is based on," he said. "What you see today is a reflection of the fact those systems we developed were built to be durable and flexible."

After retiring from IBM in 1984, Bloch was appointed director of the National Science Foundation by President Ronald Reagan. During his six-year term, he oversaw the creation of NSFNET, a precursor to the modern internet.