Charles W. Bachman



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Charles W. Bachman (1924-2017)

We were deeply saddened to learn that Charles “Charlie” Bachman III passed away in mid-July. Charlie has been a wonderful friend to our institute for many years.  I had the great pleasure of meeting him nearly two decades ago, shortly after arriving at CBI.  Charlie’s great intellect, kindness, deep love for family, and infectious positive attitude shined through every conversation I ever had with him, whether it was at a Charles Babbage Foundation meeting out in California in the early 2000s or one of his subsequent visits to CBI.  With Charlie, you always knew you would get a warm smile, his trademark bowtie, and an engaging, delightful, and enlightening conversation.   

Charlie Bachman sizes up part of his collection during a 2006 visit to CBI.
Charles Bachman at CBI

Charles W. Bachman III was born in 1924 in Manhattan, Kansas, the son of Charles W. Bachman, Jr. and Grace Marie Cary Bachman.  His father was the football coach at Kansas State and later Michigan State, which helped to foster Charlie’s love of sports.  Charlie Bachman III, however, from his earliest memories, most enjoyed tinkering and learning how things worked.  He knew he wanted to be an engineer from a young age and after graduating from high school, ahead of his class, he briefly attended Michigan State University (MSU) before joining the war effort by serving in the U.S. Army with the artillery corps in New Guinea, Australia, and the Philippines. Following World War II, Bachman returned to MSU and completed his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1948, and then earned a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania in 1950.  Shortly after graduating, he joined Dow Chemical as an engineer where he soon developed an interest in cost accounting, and particularly, the punch card tabulation machines used to do the basic data processing accountancy work.  With this experience, in 1957, he became the founding director of the Dow Chemical’s Data Processing Department and a regular attendee of IBM user group Share, Inc. meetings—exposing him to the forefront of early computer applications for business and the sciences in the formative years of the early computer age. Excited by what he saw at Share, Inc., and disappointed that Dow Chemical canceled a computer order in 1960, he left to join General Electric Corporation (GE), the largest commercial user of IBM mainframes at the time and a company involved in an R&D effort that soon led to its own computer division.

At the start of the 1960s, some large companies, including GE, were seeking to tackle the difficult task of integrating various independent data processing applications, including sales, inventory, and financial accounting.  Far more successful at this than others, Bachman led a team at GE that first produced the Manufacturing Information and Control System for a single factory (in Philadelphia), which evolved into a highly innovative breakthrough when it was refined as the Integrated Data Store (IDS) in 1963. As historian Thomas Haigh has articulated, Bachman’s IDS “…provided application programmers with a set of powerful commands to manipulate data, an early expression of what would soon be called a Data Manipulation Language.” At a time when the quite limited memory and processing capabilities of computers presented stark challenges, Bachman had created a truly pioneering database management system (DBMS), which for years far exceeded other systems in functionality and flexibility.

With the success of his unparalleled IDS, Bachman became the leader of the highly influential Committee on Data System Language’s (CODASYL’s) Database Task Group that worked to standardize terminology, approaches, and methods with database management systems.  On the basis of IDS and his continuing leadership in the young field of database management systems with his CODASYL group, Bachman won the 1973 Association for Computing Machinery Alan M. Turing Award.  As Haigh has pointed out, prior recipients all had doctorates and were mathematicians or scientists focused on theory in the relatively new field of computer science.  In contrast, Bachman was the first engineer to win the Turing Award, and had built his strong reputation on complex ideas and methods underlying the practical mechanisms for companies and organizations to make use of database management systems to integrate and effectively and efficiently use business data in an operational setting.

In 1974 Bachman and supporters engaged in debate with IBM Research’s Edgar Codd and others regarding the Bachman CODASYL database system model versus Codd’s relational database system model.  With subsequent systems on the relational side, such as those from Oracle and IBM (DB2), the relational database management systems (RDBMS) model, and the common language for it (SQL), have seen widespread use and had much commercial success. Yet it is critical to remember that groundwork for all database management systems was laid down by Bachman. As Haigh wrote, “modern relational systems continue to follow the basic template of the data base management system invented by Bachman and his CODASYL colleagues: a complex piece of software managing data storage, enforcing access restrictions, providing interfaces for application programs and ad hoc queries, and providing different views on the same data to different users.”

In the 1970s and 1980s Bachman provided very important leadership for various database standards committees including the Systems Planning and Resources Committee, a committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the Open Systems Interconnection of the Organization for Standardization. In 1983 Charlie Bachman founded Bachman Information Systems, which he ran until 1996, after which he continued to work as a consultant.  In 2014 Bachman was invited to the White House where he was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama (see CBI Newsletter piece).

CBI is especially grateful to Charlie for donating his invaluable papers to the institute—it is truly an incredible collection on the history of database management systems and the many influential accomplishments and contributions Charlie and his colleagues made to this world.  Before his passing, Charlie asked his daughter Chandini to inform Charlie’s family and many, many friends that in lieu of sending flowers that he suggested for people to make donations to the Charles Babbage Institute.  We received many such donations in memory of Charlie. We are incredibly grateful and humbled by this tremendous act of kindness so characteristic of this brilliant and gracious man who has been so generous to us at CBI for so many years.

[This short memorial article benefits from Thomas Haigh’s highly insightful “Charles William Bachman,” published as Bachman’s biography on the site of ACM Turing Award Winners. The two quotes are from this article.  Haigh also conducted an excellent oral history with Bachman and has published leading scholarship on the history of DBMS.]

Jeffrey R. Yost


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