Erich Bloch, an electrical engineer who helped usher in the era of modern computing during three decades with IBM, and who later directed hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward scientific and technological innovation as director of the National Science Foundation in the 1980s, died Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 91.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Rebecca Rosen.
The only child in a German-Jewish family, Bloch was orphaned during the Holocaust, survived the war years in Switzerland at a home for young refugees, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. He put himself through night school while pumping gas and cleaning laboratory equipment.
In 1952, he joined IBM in New York, where he established himself as a pre-eminent engineer in computing — and where he sharpened a competitive streak that he took to the sometimes fusty halls of government. As NSF director from 1984 to 1990, Bloch was credited with transforming the agency from a benefactor mainly of pure research into an engine of practical advancement.
Bloch was the first NSF director without a doctoral degree. His qualifications lay in his achievements at IBM, where he helped mastermind revolutionary developments in computing.
He was chief engineer of the company’s “Stretch” supercomputer, so named because it stretched what were then the limits of computing. Introduced in 1961 with a $10 million price tag, it was used initially by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Security Agency and was the most powerful computer at the time.
Later that decade, Bloch helped develop the IBM System/360, a family of models that are the ancestors of today’s mainframes. Fred Brooks, one of two IBM colleagues who shared with Bloch a 1985 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, credited him with managing the development of the computer’s processing chips, called Solid Logic Technology.
Bloch also oversaw the creation of NSFNET, a precursor to the modern internet, and the establishment at universities of Engineering Research Centers as well as Science and Technology Centers — long-term collaborations among the public, private and academic sectors to tackle complex matters such as lasers applications and earthquake prediction and engineering.