The 2009 Turing Award

This morning I read in the WSJ about the Turing award for 2009 was given to Charles Thacker. I must admit I did not now much about Charles Thacker, he being mostly from the hardware side of the business.

For those not familiar with this award, it is the highest honor given to contributions in computer science. Some call it the equivalent of a Nobel prize. It comes with a check of $250K and a citation. The late Dr. Ted Codd, pioneer of relational database theory received it back in 1981. The late Jim Gray got it in 1998 for his pioneering work on the “ACID properties of a database” and here is a short article by Mike Stonebraker on why Gray got it. Charles Bachman got it way back in 1973 for inventing the concept of a DBMS based on his work on IDS which became IDMS in Cullinet.

It is interesting to note that this years award goes to a hardware scientist for the second time since 1967 (Maurice Wilkins). All these years the award has gone to those known for software and other aspects of computing. Thacker is at Microsoft research. But his pioneering work dates back to the 1970s at Xerox PARC on the first personal computer called Alto. He is also known to be the father of  Ethernet. His alma mater is Berkeley (where else?) and he developed the Bee3 Berkeley Emulation Engine, a Microsoft-funded project to develop a circuit board with four FPGA chips that can be programmed to act like a parallel computer to allow students to develop and test computer designs.

This leads me to think of several such scientists of our industry hired by Microsoft – Gordon Bell, Charles Thacker, Butler Lampson, the late Jim Gray, and numerous others. It is heartening to see that research thrives in companies like Microsoft, HP and IBM. Sadly few other large software companies  are so short-term-focused that they almost deride the value of research. But research work like that of Charles Thacker is what keeps us going.

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