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November 19, 2014

Fred White, 1924-2014

FredWhiteCourtesy of his long-time collaborator and partner Alfredo Rego, this picture of Fred White was taken in 2004, when Fred was 80 and several years into retirement. The legendary co-creator of IMAGE and the SPL expert in Adager's Labs, White was a Marine Corps veteran. Rego said while offering this portrait, "I took this photo with my Olympus E-1 on October 26, 2004 (just a bit over 10 years ago!) in Cedar City, Utah, where he and Judy lived for a while. Fred invited Judy and me to lunch, and I snapped this image across the table. I loved everything there: The warm light, the delicious food, the stimulating conversation, the young college students rushing about..."

The creator of the heartbeat of the HP 3000, Fred White, passed away on November 18, 2014 at the age of 90. White died peacefully in the presence of his wife Judy and family members, of natural causes. He had relocated to Arizona after retiring from Adager in the year after Y2K. His work in building the essential database for MPE, alongside Jon Bale, was the keystone of the 3000 experience. Rego took note of a key identifier inside the IMAGE internals, one that signified a database was sound and accurate. The flag was FW, or as Rego said in a short tribute to his partner, "%043127, the octal representation of “FW” — the flag for a normal IMAGE/3000 database (and TurboIMAGE, and IMAGE/SQL)."

White's work for the 3000 community came in two stages. The first was his innovations while working for HP, building a network database which won awards until HP stopped selling IMAGE and included it with the HP 3000. (Bundled software would not be considered for prizes like the Datamation award bestowed on IMAGE in 1976.) IMAGE, integrated at a foolproof level with the MPE intrinsics and filesystem, delivered a ready field for a small army of developers to plant applications and tools. Without White's work, the 3000 would have been just a footnote in HP's attempts to enter the computer business.

The second stage of White's gifts to the community began when HP had infuriated him for the last time. Never a fan of large organizations, he left Hewlett-Packard when it became clear the vendor had no interest in enhancing IMAGE. But before he departed HP, White met with Rego when the latter was visiting HP in an effort to learn more about IMAGE from the vendor, in preparation for a forthcoming database manager he'd create. As the legend is told, White decided he'd try to help Rego just to ensure that the creation to be called Adager could emerge a little easier.

"He hoped we would answer his questions," White said in a post-retirement interview. His partner Jon Bale "said that kind of help would be contrary to HP company policy. I said to him, 'Jon, this guy’s going to get this done whether we help him or not. All we’re doing is helping a fellow human. Whatever it takes, Alfredo’s going to do it anyway.' "

"At that point, Jon said it was up to me, but he couldn’t do it because it wasn’t HP company policy. He wished Alfredo the best of luck and left. So I answered his questions, and even told him things he couldn’t possibly have thought of, such as privileged mode intrinsic calling and negative DBOPEN modes, things peculiar to the software rather than the database. We chatted for an hour and a half or so."

The exchange in 1977 pointed toward the door to the Adager segment of White's career. The years between 1980 and 2001 allowed Fred to make up for his reticence inside corporations by becoming the conscience of accuracy and fairness. Innovations for IMAGE finally arrived in the middle 1990s. But White's most saucy moment of advocacy came in Boston when HP was trying to make IMAGE a separate product once again.

The battle raged in a conference hall on the scene of the Interex user group meeting in 1990. Unbundling was an HP strategy designed to make it easier to buy an Oracle database for the 3000, reducing the price of the hardware modestly while making room for an add-on product. HP's database would be on a footing with all other offerings, but White and others knew that a 3000 without IMAGE was not the product the community trusted with its loyalties.

It was an era when users offered advocacy in a tone of angst. This sometimes was not the exchange that HP desired to air in public. But it was good for the capability of the system. HP had to watch the international computer press listen to a rumbling roar of revolution from 3000 users. A meeting of the IMAGE Special Interest Group came to be known as your community's Boston Tea Party. Rego recalled the moment of highest revolt.

Fred White (co-author of IMAGE and at the time Senior Scientist at Adager Labs) addressed Bill Murphy (HP’s Director of Marketing) from the floor and complimented Bill on his tie. Fred then explained how stupid it was for HP to unbundle IMAGE. Fred continued by describing the negative effects in products that depended on having IMAGE on the HP 3000. Fred also provided some historic background by relating how Ed McCracken (a previous 3000 General Manager) had made a success of the HP 3000 by bundling IMAGE in the mid '70s. Fred was firm but courteous. No tomatoes (err, tea bags) were thrown. Perhaps the whole “Boston Tea Party” legend started because Fred used the word “stupid” in public, applying it to HP’s management, with no apologies.

The crucial work needed to support a dizzy array of date types was near the apex of White's work at Adager, details scrutinized and attended to during the advent of Y2K. After his retirement, White remained visible in both online communities and at gatherings of the 3000 community's most formidable minds.

His computer career crossed five decades, starting in 1957 when programmer degrees didn’t exist and math experts did the heavy lifting to create file systems, operating environments and applications. In the beginning of his work for HP, he was creating the first file system for the 3000. He was then transferred to another project that grew into the creation of IMAGE.

He came to his HP work from 12 years of positions at Sylvania Electronic Defense Lab, United Technology Center and IBM. White had prepared for his more than 43 years of programming by work and study in forestry, engineering, Japanese, criminology and math. He joined Sylvania two months before Sputnik was launched by the Russians. By 1969 he’d responded to HP’s entreaties and followed some UTC colleagues to HP Cupertino, where he headed up the File System Project for the Omega System, which evolved to MPE.

Never a fan of large organizations, White eventually left HP in 1981 after he had been moved away from IMAGE and onto other projects. He first met Rego when the latter traveled to HP Cupertino to meet the IMAGE creators and learn more about IMAGE and its data structures. White took a post which Rego offered as a consultant to Adager in 1981, and became a senior research engineer for that company in 1989.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the tall, silver-haired programmer cut a notable swath through the HP 3000 community, especially at the annual Interex user group meetings. Always ready to level with HP’s management about what the HP 3000 needed, White’s comments and criticisms in those meetings represented the same unflinching focus required for his SPL programming on the 3000’s internals.

White always wanted to stay busy at his work. In 1946 he worked on Okinawa as a Japanese interpreter for a construction company and applied for a decrease in pay when he thought the company hadn’t given him enough to do. His 19-plus years with Adager made up the biggest single stay in a career in which he said “I quit a lot of jobs. That’s what I’m prone to do when management screws up.”

In his retirement White was active with family members, traveling, hiking and bird watching. The subject of the watches was mostly raptors, he added. "We like our place in Clarkdale (desert plants and critters) with great views of Mingus Mountain and the red rock area of Sedona," he said in 2003. "I like keeping in touch with many of my old friends and enemies on the Internet and mailing lists."

When we asked him about the single biggest mistake HP made with the HP 3000, White was ready with
"at least five I can think of. 1. Not having the development teams being the support teams. 2. Getting in bed with Oracle. 3. Not being aware that there are no relational databases, just relational access to databases. 4. Following the Unix pied piper. 5. Not marketing the HP 3000. For example, they never bothered to tell the world that the computers they used at corporate headquarters were HP 3000s."

As to what kept him so productive for so long, he mentioned his single-language focus on SPL, as well as still being interested in his work. But he also said, "Having a boss who was more interested in quality than quantity." The community poured out good wishes to a special email address, fred@adager.com, in his final days. One developer who heard of his passing said, "Let's hope that when Fred gets upstairs, his entry permit to Heaven is stamped 'Automatic, Master'." 

09:34 PM in History, Newsmakers | Permalink

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