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An Engineer’s Engineer

The visionary thinking of Erich Bloch revolutionized the computer industry and transformed the National Science Foundation. At 90, he is still chock full of ideas.

 Erich Bloch in his Washington, D.C., office.

Erich Bloch in his Washington, D.C., office. 

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan | Photographs by Grant Gibson

Last December, Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) hosted an evening in Phoenix honoring Erich Bloch (BS ’52), a former board member who was about to celebrate his 90th birthday. During the celebration, science and computer executives praised Bloch as a computer pioneer, an engineer’s engineer, an idol and a rock star. 

“He stands for mustering the will to make bold investments, to stay relentless in the effort to improve the human condition,” said SFAz Chairman Don Budinger. “Think about that. That’s the primary purpose of research.”

Bloch, a German-born American, studied electrical engineering at the Federal Polytechnic Institute of Zurich, Switzerland, and received his bachelor of science degree in the same subject from UB in 1952. He served as the eighth director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1984 to 1990—the first without a PhD, coming from industry as opposed to academia. Among other accomplishments, he transitioned the NSF Network to a commercialized Internet, established the Science and Technology Centers, and more than tripled the budget for education and human resources. He is widely considered to have been the most effective NSF director in communicating the benefits of investing in research and education. 

Prior to his appointment, Bloch had a 32-year career at IBM, where he helped develop the STRETCH supercomputer system. He was also lead architect for IBM’s System/360, which made possible such conveniences as ATMs, electronic health care records and global travel reservations. Later, Bloch was appointed vice president of IBM’s Data Systems Division and general manager of the East Fishkill facility. From 1981 to 1984, he served as the founding chairman of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, which funded advanced research in universities. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Bloch and two others for their work on the IBM System/360. 

Last year, Bloch donated $1.5 million to UB to establish the Erich Bloch Endowed Chair for the new Department of Materials Design and Innovation. These days, he works out of the offices of the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C., where he became the organization’s first distinguished fellow in 1991. We talked to Bloch there in the spring.

Erich Bloch

Erich Bloch

What inspired you as a student?

I was always interested in mathematics. My first idea was to become a professor. Then I decided I wanted something I could get my hands on, so I pursued an area of engineering that was heavily involved in mathematics—electrical engineering, which is now electronics and everything else combined. Mathematics was something that 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. It was more of a general theory of how the world works. 

What did your parents do?

My father was a businessman and my mother was a mother. 

Did you have anyone encouraging you in sciences as a child?

I was encouraged by my teachers. I wasn’t that encouraged at home, because people thought you really had to do something where you could earn a living. In mathematics you don’t earn a living—that was the general point. My parents were supportive but not like parents are today. 

How do you think science education has changed from then to now?

I think there used to be a big divide between what were called abstract studies and studies aimed at a particular kind of occupation. Who took mathematics as an undergraduate? Very few people. Today, everybody does. I think it’s a different environment—now people look at what is required to be successful in a particular area, and mathematics is an area we focus on.

One thing people talk about now is the dearth of women in the sciences. How can we change that?

I think there’s a general understanding today that women can pursue science and mathematics. That was not the case when I grew up. It was, “Oh, she’s a woman, she’ll take care of the house.” We have grown out of that. Can you make it happen faster? Yes, and that’s what people are trying to do, and I’m certainly for that. But I’m not for forcing women into science just because it’s good to have more women in science. That’s a negative, and it’s also an exaggeration. Women are not excluded today. I think the worst thing is insisting it needs to be 50-50. That’s nonsense. In the end, it depends on the individual—what he or she can do or accomplish, not filling a gap that someone said needs to be filled.

What do you think the U.S. must do to stay competitive in research and education?

Get better! Look at countries that are ahead of us, like Israel, Sweden and Finland. You have to bring the whole country along. We have great differences within the United States. Look at the bottom 10 states and compare their performances to the top 10 states. You shouldn’t have that type of discrepancy. Look at who are on school boards—people who don’t really understand this. They’re there because they’re local politicians, or for reasons that have little to do with insight into education. I always thought this idea of each city having its own program for education is awfully wrong. You need to have a certain basis and then be able to build. Today it’s a political game. We’ll suffer from that. 

There’s also a fine line for us in the United States between staying competitive and sharing research for the greater good. What’s the solution there?

That’s an old question. You balance by trying to understand what a country has that you don’t have and then going after that particular area. If you have to give up something, exchange information. We are much too careful. What’s wrong with giving everything to the Chinese? Just make sure you get from the Chinese everything they know. That’s a lot more interesting than saying, “I can’t let you in here because I can’t let you see what we’re doing.” That’s appropriate for a company about to release a product but not for companies doing research. 

What did you take away from your time at UB?

I didn’t go to the University at Buffalo as a traditional student. I went to evening courses because I had to work during the day to make some money. I worked at Allied Chemical and Dye, a big chemical company that got absorbed by other companies. I was lucky enough to be in their basic research department for three years. So I was going there during the day and to school at night. I had some courses with people who worked in industry in Buffalo. Some of them were really good and could show you the relationship between studying a particular field and working in that field. I always thought if I had gone to the day school I would have gotten more out of university. But I’m not convinced of that today. I think I got more doing what I did. It was tough, though, because I worked 16 hours a day. 

Eric Bloch's hands

Early in your career, did you have any idea how computers would take on the role they play today?

Yes, I did. It was very clear that electronics coupled with computers would be a major development that was required in order to move forward. It was more than an end in itself. When I started at IBM, I was looked at as a screwball. “Yeah, he wants to play around with computers.” I didn’t want to play around with them—I wanted to put them to use.

What technologies do you use today? Do you have a smartphone?

Sure! I have one computer here, one at home, one in my pocket. That’s enough. You have to make sure your technology doesn’t take more time to keep up with than to actually use. 

Today some people are pushing back on technology, saying we’re too dependent on it, or that having a screen in front of us all the time is bad for focusing or creative thinking. What do you say?

I don’t think that’s correct. It can overwhelm you, no doubt about it. But I think it’s up to the individual to understand what he wants to pursue and keep out the things that are not important from his or her viewpoint. 

What puzzles are you still trying to solve?

Big data. People don’t really understand what to do with all that information. They have millions of bits of information that they can’t possibly understand without the help of computers. 

You spent six years at the NSF. One bio says you were a controversial leader. Were you?

I don’t know if I was controversial. I think they were surprised I got involved with some of the details I got involved in. The thing I was happy about—I made up my mind I would stay for all six years of the appointment, because no one else except the first two directors were there for six years. I was convinced that if you want to do something, that’s about the time it takes to put some ideas into place and make sure that changes are accepted. 

Looking back now, would you have done anything differently?

No. I did what I thought at that time was important. Revisiting that now and coming to a different conclusion is not very helpful to anyone, especially oneself. You live a life only once. You don’t live it twice. You do what you think is right at the time, and you stand on that.

Washington, D.C.-based writer Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, National Parks Magazine and Washingtonian.