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 Nov. 25 at his home in Washington. He was 91.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Rebecca Rosen.
The only child in a German-Jewish family, Mr. 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 preeminent 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, Mr. Bloch was credited with transforming the agency from a benefactor mainly of pure research into an engine of practical advancement.
He “changed NSF’s image,” Science magazine writers Joseph Palca and Eliot Marshall observed when Mr. Bloch left office, “from that of a mother hen for a brood of academic scientists to an agency with a plan for improving the nation.”
Mr. Bloch was the first NSF director to come from a business rather than academic background and the first 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Bloch a 1985 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, credited Mr. Bloch with managing the development of the computer’s processing chips, called Solid Logic Technology.
Thomas J. Watson Jr., who led IBM at the time, is widely regarded as having “bet the company” on Mr. Bloch, his colleagues and the System/360 project, which totaled $5 billion — twice the company’s annual revenue. It became, according to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., the “most successful computer system of all time.”
“These were really the Apollo astronauts of the computing field,” John C. Hollar, the president and chief executive of the museum, said in an interview. “They were doing things that no one had ever attempted to do before.”
Mr. Bloch’s experience at IBM informed his philosophy at NSF, a federal agency that is the government’s chief funder of nonmedical scientific research. His goal, he told the publication Science in 1985, was to make sure “that our own infrastructure and research is the best in the world,” capable of competing with Europe, Japan and other markets.
“A lot of people are upset about that kind of approach to life. They say science is international, so who cares who does it,” he remarked. “I say science is no more international than commerce is. . . . I think it’s a highly competitive field, I don’t apologize for it.”
Bill Harris, who served at NSF as assistant director for math and physical sciences, credited the approach with saving the NSF from possible elimination during federal belt-tightening. Mr. Bloch persuaded Reagan administration officials not only to spare it, but even to increase its budget.
Under Mr. Bloch, the NSF emphasized fields such as computer science, engineering and biotechnology. He 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 laser applications and earthquake prediction and engineering.
“The single investigator can’t do it with a Bunsen burner,” he told Science in 1986.
Mr. Bloch’s admirers regarded him as a powerful advocate for results in a bureaucracy that tended toward inertia. Some detractors saw him as insufficiently attentive to individual researchers pursuing questions of pure science. But, in his view, scientists “have no inalienable right to funding.”
“If all that we are doing is the individual research grant approach to science, then I think this country is going down the drain,” he told Science. “Science is changing, the tools of science are changing. And that requires different approaches. Yeah, it will make some people nervous. Well, they don’t have to participate in it. But that doesn’t mean that the country doesn’t need that approach. It does need it. And it should have started earlier, in my opinion.”
Erich Bloch was born in Sulzburg, a town on the edge of the Black Forest, on Jan. 9, 1925. His father, a businessman, and his mother, a homemaker, were deported by the Nazis and perished in the concentration camps.
“I have been pretty much on my own my whole life,” he told the New York Times in 1987. “It wasn’t easy getting started. It took a certain amount of drive and aggressiveness. I learned very early I had to do things myself for something to get done.”
Mr. Bloch received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Buffalo, now part of the State University of New York, in 1952 before joining IBM, where he retired as vice president of technical personnel development.
At NSF, Mr. Bloch took particular interest in programs benefiting women, minorities and the disabled in the sciences. After leaving office, he co-founded a consulting firm, the Washington Advisory Group. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the nonprofit Council on Competitiveness and a past board member of Motorola.
His wife of 56 years, the former Renee Stern, died in 2004. Survivors include his daughter, Rebecca Rosen of Trumbull, Conn.; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.
In recent years, an interviewer from SUNY-Buffalo asked Mr. Bloch if, looking back on his career at NSF and beyond, he would have done anything differently.
“No,” he replied. “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.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Mr. Bloch graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He graduated in 1952 from the University of Buffalo, which later joined the State University of New York.
Read more Washington Post obituaries