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Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC)

John In the early 1970s, John Cocke transformed computing by simplifying the set of instructions that tell computers what functions to perform.

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 Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1956. He joined IBM the next year, and still works there, although he retired a couple years ago.

Cocke's first project at IBM was the Stretch Computer. He soon became a specialist in large systems, and made many advances in systems architecture and in compiler optimization.

In 1974, Cocke and his research team began an attempt to build a telephone switching network that could handle 300 calls per second. In order to accomplish this, Cocke had to find a way to speed up the rate at which the system got its instructions. The systems were clogged up with instructions like "multiply," which were rarely used but essential. Cocke decided to dismantle the more complicated instructions into simple, binary code, using logic and what he called "numerical tricks." These simpler elements of instructions were stored in an "instruction cache" and used piecemeal, as necessary, allowing the system to reach the same results as before but much more quickly.

Cocke's Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architecture, called the "801" after the building at the Thomas Watson Research Center at which Cocke was working, soon established itself as the industry standard. Cocke refined his system in the following years, including a key role in developing IBM's RS/6000 in the 1980s.

Along the way, Cocke earned over 20 patents. He also earned a reputation as an eccentric, whose enthusiasm for his work kept him --- and any colleague he could find to share his ideas with --- busy all day and all night. On the other hand, Cocke had little interest in mundane matters: he was famous for never cashing his paychecks, for example.

All agree that Cocke is an great inspiration to those who know him or his work. Besides the RISC system, he has made major contributions in logic simulation, coding theory, and other aspects of compiler optimization. Although he considers himself "fantastically lazy," John Cocke is a true giant of the history of computing, and is one of the very few engineers to have won both the National Medal of Technology (1991) and the National Medal of Science (1994).

[Aug. 1999]

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