RIP, John Cocke, inventor of the Risc chips

The boffin's boffin


John Cocke, one of the principal architects of Reduced Instruction Set Computing, died on Tuesday after a long illness, including a series of strokes, in a hospital in New York state. He was 77.

Cocke was born in 1925 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father served on the Board of Trustees of Duke University, and there Cocke did both his undergraduate and graduate work, culminating in a PhD in Mathematics in 1956. He joined IBM in 1957, and continued to work in its offices even after he 'retired' in 1992.

In 1974, Cocke and his research team tackled the design on a telephone switch intended to handle 300 calls per second. The design required a way to accelerate the rate at which the system was capable of processing instructions.

Cooke approached the problem by breaking down more complicated instructions into simpler, more frequently used ones, so the more compex and more infrequently used ones were dealt with by a series of instructions - and so Reduced Instruction Set Computing was born.

This RISC architecture, called the "801" after the building at the Thomas Watson Research Center in which Cocke was working, gained support from several companies other than IBM. Cocke went on to play a pivotal role in the development of IBM's RS/6000 in the 1980s, the point at which IBM itself belatedly noticed Risc, and he gained 20 patents through his work.

At IBM, Cocke was the boffin's boffin, ignoring his paychecks and wandering the campus, leaving a trail of cigarette butts (the fresher, the closer he was likely to be). You can find a brief biography of Cocke here, and a longer interview here. ®

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