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Science/Technology

Computer visionary, UB alum Erich Bloch remembered

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Grant Gibson
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A small, private service was held to remember the giant of a man whose pioneering IBM 360 and networking innovations became the basis for modern computers. The University at Buffalo is among those remembering alumnus Erich Bloch, who died November 25 at the age of 91.

"When I sat with him, I knew I was sitting with greatness," remembered UB Senior Philanthropic Advisor Tim Siderakis. He and Bloch had a "sort of uncle-nephew relationship."

"I was scared of him at first. He would be very blunt with you and he had this heavy German accent. He was an intimidating man," Siderakis said.

However, there was another side of Bloch, as well.

"He was such a generous, supportive individual and he would give you guidance and advice," Siderakis said. "He loved his experience at UB. He really didn't have a lot, right. He was here working, taking night classes, but he was very grateful for the education he received here and he never forgot about UB."

Bloch was born in Germany in 1925 and was sent to Switzerland by his Jewish parents in 1939 as the war was beginning. There he lived in a home for refugees and studied electrical engineering at the Federal Polytechnic Institute.

His parents would not see him receive a bachelor's degree in the same subject from UB in 1952, as they perished in concentrations camps during World War II. However, that degree helped him get a job at IBM. It was there, during a 32-year career, he transformed computing with the introduction of the IBM mainframe.

"Computers were like big calculators, not just very slow by today's standards, but they were really they were really dedicated to a single purpose," said UB Engineering Professor of Operations Research Mark Karwan, who helped Bloch reconnect with the university in the 1990s. "You couldn't just program them to do anything, so IBM's development of the IBM 360 was the first multi-purpose computer, what we think of as computers today."

It was Bloch who convinced IBM to invest $5 billion in the development of his 360 computer, which established IBM as a computer powerhouse. Karwan said it was that invention and subsequent networking innovations that made possible modern conveniences such as ATM machines and shopping from home.

"So it was sort of like if the Wright Brothers hadn't done airplanes, we wouldn't have jets. If he hadn't done the work they they did in networks and networking of networks, then that wouldn't have led to the internet," Karwan said.

In a 2015 interview in UB's alumni magazine, Bloch talked about what inspired him as a student.

"Mathematics was something I thought I understood and it was abstract enough. It wasn't tied to things like screws and power supplies that I wasn't interested in," Bloch said. "It was more of a general theory of how the world works. I was inspired by my teachers. My parents were supportive, but not like parents today."

It was that same curious mind that helped transform the National Science Foundation, after his appointment in 1984 by President Reagan. Reagan awarded Bloch the nation's first National Medal for Technology, as the New York Times said, "for revolutionizing data processing."

In addition to UB, Bloch established research collaborations with other institutions of high learning. Most recently, he worked out of the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C., where he became the organization's first distinguished fellow in 1991. What did Bloch think the United States had to do to stay competitive in research and education?

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The IBM 360 being tested by the USDA in 1966.

"Get better!" Bloch answered in 2015. "Look at countries that are ahead of us, like Israel, Sweden and Finland. You have to bring the whole country along. Today it's a political game. We'll suffer from that."

Karwan said Bloch brought onboard many of his colleagues from the science world to UB's School of Engineering and helped guide its strategic planning.

"He was looking for things that make a change," Karwan said. "He wasn't a big component of giving money for buildings. We certainly needed it, but he wanted to invest in the human component. He was investing in people. He was investing in the undergraduates, the graduates and the faculties that could lead the university."

One of Bloch last gifts to the university was $1.5 million in 2014 to endow the Chair of the Engineering School's new Department of Materials Design and Innovation. Karwan said Bloch thought that was the school's one missing element.

"It's a remarkable individual, a remarkable scientist and engineer who remembered his university, contributed to his university and to Western New York and, truly, to the country and the global economy," Karwan said. "Just a real giant."

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