HPC Pioneer Gordon Bell Passed Away

By John Russell

May 22, 2024

Legendary computer scientist Gordon Bell passed away last Friday at his home in Coronado, CA. He was 89. The New York Times has a nice tribute piece. A long-time pioneer with Digital Equipment Corp, he pushed hard for development of lower cost, high-performing alternatives to the IBM mainframe. In recent years, he was most familiar to the HPC community because of the prestigious ACM Gordon Bell Prize, named in his honer, and presented at the annual SC conference each year.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYT article:

Gordon Bell

“C. Gordon Bell, a technology visionary whose computer designs for Digital Equipment Corporation fueled the emergence of the minicomputer industry in the 1960s, died on Friday at his home in Coronado, Calif. He was 89.

“The cause was pneumonia, his family said in a statement.

“Called the “Frank Lloyd Wright of computers” by Datamation magazine, Mr. Bell was the master architect in the effort to create smaller, affordable, interactive computers that could be clustered into a network. A virtuoso at computer architecture, he built the first time-sharing computer and championed efforts to build the Ethernet. He was among a handful of influential engineers whose designs formed the vital bridge between the room-size models of the mainframe era and the advent of the personal computer.

“After stints at several other startup ventures, Mr. Bell became the head of the National Science Foundation’s computers and information science and engineering group, where he directed the effort to link the world’s supercomputers into a high-speed network that led directly to the development of the modern internet. He later joined Microsoft’s nascent research lab, where he remained for about 20 years before being named researcher emeritus.”

HPCwire interviewed Bell back in Feb 2023 on the creation of the special ACM Gordon Bell Prize for Climate Modeling and he made is view on the importance of acknowledging and combating climate change very clear:

“One of the big things that’s been going on is just not admitting that climate is manmade,” Gordon Bell told HPCwire. “Maybe one of the great contributions to computing has been being able to model well enough to convince people that it’s manmade.”

“The prize this time… I woke up angry about – I shouldn’t say angry about, but just disappointed [that] there’s not a really good ledger about what’s going on here,” Bell said. “We’re not at any level – I don’t think we’re at a good national level yet as to: what are our commitments, and how are we doing vis-à-vis the commitments? To me, it’s so vague at this point. That’s one aspect. The prize I hope will help a little bit in that. … In order to get change going on, you really have to assign what you’re doing, and I just am so disappointed. It’s such a massive problem.”

The interview by Oliver Peckham was recorded and worth a listen.

Bell will be missed.

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