We tend to think that the phenomenon of engineers and scientists being at the top of a company is something that started with Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak or Gary Kildal. But this just isn’t the case. Even back in the days when IBM was the single most important computer company, it was possible for one of its engineers to escape and make an impact that disturbed even Big Blue.
Gene Amdahl was born in Flandreau, South Dakota, in 1922. He holds a B.S. in engineering physics (1948) from South Dakota State University and M.S. and Ph.D. (1952) degrees in theoretical physics from the University of Wisconsin. Gene Amdahl is a physicist who got into computers because he wanted to work out something complicated. In 1950 he was asked by one of his professors to calculate whether the nuclear strong force was really enough to hold together a nucleus. For thirty days Amdahl slaved over a slide rule and a mechanical desk calculator to provide only two more significant digits to the solution. This is the sort of experience that drove many a scientist to become a computer pioneer.
Amdahl had taught physics, and then electronics, to the navy during the war and was well able to understand what was going on in the new field of electronic digital computers. In 1951 he started to build the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized Computer (WISC). It had a floating point unit and could execute four instructions in parallel. This was very advanced for the time and indicated Amdahl’s flair for digital electronics and systems. The machine itself wasn’t finished for many years because it was used as a training project in electronics but it served its purpose and Amdahl got a PhD out of it - but in theoretical physics!
In 1952 he joined IBM and ended up in the New York plant where the IBM 701 defence calculator was just being finished. It was already clear that something more powerful was needed and so he was set to work, as chief planner and project engineer, on its replacement, the 704.
At IBM, Amdahl worked on the IBM 704, the IBM 709, and then the Stretch project, the basis for the IBM 7030. He left IBM in December 1955 but returned in September 1960 (after working at Ramo Wooldridge and at Aeronutronic). On his return he worked on the System/360 family architecture and became an IBM Fellow in 1965, and head of the ACS Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. He left IBM again in September 1970, after his ideas for computer development were rejected, and set up Amdahl Corporation in Sunnyvale, California with aid from Fujitsu.
Competing with IBM in the mainframe market, the company manufactured "plug-compatible" mainframes, shipping its first machine in 1975 – the Amdahl 470V/6, a less expensive, more reliable and faster replacement for the System 370/168. By purchasing an Amdahl 470 and plug-compatible peripheral devices from third-party manufacturers, customers could now run S/360 and S/370 applications without buying actual IBM hardware. Amdahl's software team developed VM/PE, software designed to optimize the performance of IBM's MVS operating system when running under IBM's VM operating system. By 1979 Amdahl Corporation had sold over a US $1 billion of V6 and V7 mainframes and had over 6,000 employees worldwide. The corporation went on to distribute an IBM-plug-compatible front-end processor (the 4705) as well as high-performance disk drives, both jointly developed with Fujitsu engineers.
At the Spring Joint Computer Conference, Amdahl along with three other computer architects, most notably Dan Slotnick, ILLIAC IV architect, engaged in a discussion on future architectural trends. Amdahl argued, verbally and in three written pages, for performance limitations in any special feature or mode introduced to new machines. This resulted in two, major and lesser, "laws" of computer performance regarding sequential vs. parallel processing. These arguments continue to this day.