August 21, 2000

Here is the obituary for my dad in the Springfield newspaper. 

 

Henry Burkhardt III, 55; made mark in computers

 

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Henry Burkhardt III, 55, of this town, died Monday at a local hospital. He worked in the computer industry, held eight patents in the fields of high-performance computing and parallel processing and designed the Nova computer. He was a founder of the former Data General Corp. and became chief financial officer. He also was a founder of Encore Computer Co. and Kendall Square Research Corp. Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., he grew up in South Hadley, Mass., and was schooled there. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and attended Princeton University. He leaves his wife, the former Ruth McDaniel; a son, John of Arlington, Mass.; a daughter, Karen Simas of Acton, Mass.; his parents, Dr. Henry and Ruth Burkhardt of South Hadley; two brothers, William of Warren, R.I., and Robert of Sudbury, Mass.; and three grandchildren. A private memorial service and burial will be arranged in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. Forest Lawn Funeral Home of Pompano Beach is in charge. Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, 31 Capital Drive, West Springfield, 01089. 

 

John Burkhardt

 

 

John Burkhardt

September 15, 2000

 

Dear John,

I regret that I am unable to attend the Memorial Service tomorrow for Henry.

 

Henry and I first met when I convinced him to work at Digital in 1963 after he decided to leave Princeton to work with computers. From our very first meeting, his brilliance and enthusiasm shown through.  We worked together on various projects including the ill-fated PDP-X that he helped architect. While I was at Carnegie Tech in the late 60s, I was solidly behind the project.  The project was cancelled and that may have prompted he and Ed to found DG.  This was a great loss for Digital, since it created a competitor with a superior product.

 

As a founder of DG, he was the Nova architect as well as head of software at DG.  Many of us regard it as one of the great architectures. (It bore no relation to the PDP-X.)  The other thing that amazed me from afar was the breath/depth as a CFO, chief counsel, architect, programmer, and CTO.  His ability to look at a contract or make a credible business model was incredible.  This same ability was often applied to meetings and people... not always with the greatest success.  Like myself, he simply wants to "cut to the chase" so we can do the next interesting or great thing.

 

In 1983, he and Ken Fisher convinced me to found Encore.  We created one of the first (three, I believe) "multis" or microprocessor-based, shared memory, multi-processor -- "Multimax", that was archetypical of virtually every multiprocessor computer that is built.  Multimax was the best of that time.  We also convinced John Hennessey to form MIPS. "Founderitis" developed set in at Encore and when he left in 1985, I followed him.  The book, High Tech Ventures that I wrote in 1991 benefited greatly from the Encore experience and Henry's insights about all sorts of critical issues for startups.

 

Henry was a Computer Museum founder in Boston and was a key (with his contribution) to helping it open in 1982.

 

He founded KSR that introduced the first scalable (to 1024) processor multiprocessor. From the beginning, I was proud to be a technical advisor and investor in the company that made many contributions.  The KSR patents were purchased by SUN.  The basic ideas embodied in the patents are likely to be present in computers for several decades.

 

I'm sorry that most of what I say about Henry is about his contributions and our technical interactions (but that's how we were), because it omits the various personal sides that I also enjoyed. I really enjoyed all of our interactions and friendship over these last years. 

 

Those of us who sort of knew him well, will really miss him, his enthusiasm, and his particular warmth with his friends.

 

Regards,

g

 

 

 

Saturday, September 23, 2000

 

Gordon Bell

 

Dear Gordon,

 

My nephew forwarded me your comments about his dad (my brother), and I would like to thank you for all that you said.  I plan to get copies to my parents and sister-in-law as well.  I am attaching the talk

I gave at Henry's memorial service, along with a font you will most likely need in order for the reading from Homer to look the way it should (the service was in my parents' church where I knew they'd

be reading from the Bible, and I thought Henry would appreciate some alternate points of view being represented).

 

As I was quite young when Henry went away to school, I have always idealized him, admiring him from a distance (sometimes a very great distance).  What has struck me in the past month, from comments

I have heard from you, Ed DeCastro, and other former colleagues of Henry's, is the extent to which my idealized picture of him was in fact grounded in reality.

 

Henry always spoke of you and your wife in the most respectful terms, and I know that you played an important mentoring role for him throughout his career, for which my parents and I are grateful.  I remember visiting the Computer Museum in Boston when it first opened. At the time, I was working at the Geophysics Lab at Hanscom and I made a point of telling the director of computer operations there that the CDC 6600 she was still running had a lower serial number than the one on display in the museum (I think it was something like #2 vs.

#3- I imagine that #1 was snatched up right away by some gov't agency.  Where did you find #3?).  I look forward to visiting the West Coast instantiation of the museum some day (my business travel generally takes me to DC, not CA, and I haven't been in the Bay area since I left Stanford in the mid 70's).

 

I hadn't realized until reading your note that the KSR patents had been taken up by SUN.  I am glad that all the work they did there is being put to some use- it seemed like such a waste, and I don't think Henry ever really recovered from it.

 

Thanks again,

 

Bob Burkhardt (Henry's baby brother)

 

 

Skinner Chapel

Holyoke, Massachusetts

September 16, 2000

 

First, I would like to say something about this place where we have gathered today.  This sanctuary has stayed just as I remember it from childhood (we used to come screaming through here after choir practice on Friday afternoons- the echoes are great- but please don’t try it just now); it remains untouched by time inside here, even though the city outside has changed unrecognizably over the years.  My parents were married in this place, and later my brothers and I were too.  And when our son Mark was born we were still living in this area, and so he was baptized here.  So in many ways, this is the place from which all of us started out on our various journeys through the world.

 

Now, when Henry went off to school at Exeter, I was only about eight years old, and we never really lived full time under the same roof after that.  So a lot of my memories of him, particularly from long ago, are of a kind of episodic or snapshot nature.  I’d like to share some of these snapshots with you.

 

First, about our house.  In the 1950’s, decades before there was an Internet, or even an Arpanet, Henry saw to it that our house was online, at least in an analog sense.  We were totally wired.  There were wires and cables everywhere, through the cellar and the attic, and up and down inside the walls, connecting everything in the house with everything else.  Back in the days when the phone company owned all the equipment in your house, he had rigged up magnetic pickups to allow phone extensions and recording without direct connection to the phone lines.  There were capacitive proximity detectors to warn him if Mom or Dad were coming down the hall.  There were speakers and microphones strategically located around the place so that he could give us all orders and figure out what we were all up to.

 

Now all this wiring extended outside the house as well.  We went to visit our grandparents in Detroit every summer, and while we were there for a few weeks in August, their house went online too.  And then there was the incident with the Dodge Dart.  We had a 1960 Dodge Dart station wagon, which was the first car to have a pushbutton transmission. It also had an electric window in the back that you had to open to get the tailgate down.  Well, one time we were locked out of  the car in a parking lot somewhere when our parents weren’t around.  So Henry borrowed my official Cub Scout pocket knife, and used the blade as a screwdriver to remove the lens from one of the rear brake lights.  He reached in and managed to find just the right wire, the one which, when shorted to ground, activated the tailgate motor and rolled down the back window.  By the way, I don’t think this trick was something he had learned about by reading the owner’s manual!  Some people were walking by just then, looking at us rather suspiciously, so Henry said something like “Hmm, I guess this tail light is burned out, we’ll have to replace it when we get home”.  Once the people had left, I crawled in through the hatch and opened up the doors.  Our parents were quite surprised to find us sitting inside the car when they got back.

 

In the course of our many long family trips, there were always interesting conversations going on about various subjects.  For example, there was the following lesson in chemistry:  Now our Dad always liked to get Sunoco gasoline for the car, but one day we needed gas when there was no Sunoco station in sight, so he stopped at a Shell station instead.  So in the back seat Henry starts up with, “well, Bob, do you know what happens when you mix two different kinds of gasoline in the same engine?”  At the tender age of 7 or so I fell for the bait, as usual,  and said “no, what?” to which he replied “Well, nothing.  At least, nothing at first.  But you can be driving along ten minutes or half an hour later, when suddenly the whole car might just blow up”.  Of course I believed him.  I always believed everything he told me.  I don’t think our parents ever understood why there was always so much screaming coming out of the back seat on these trips, but this may help explain some of it.

 

There was one year when I came home from summer camp and noticed a balloon under my bed, next to a solenoid (electromagnet) with a needle attached in such a way that the needle would pop the balloon when some electrical current passed through the solenoid.  I was very proud of myself when I traced the circuit back to a mysterious wire that disappeared into the heating duct, and presumably from there into the Matrix of Henry’s analog network.  He was quite disappointed when the balloon didn’t pop in the middle of the night, because I had disconnected the wire.

 

Down in the basement, there was a corner area full of electronic equipment.  When Henry was still quite young he had built all sorts of things, like oscilloscopes and voltmeters and Tesla coils and a radio controlled scale model of the US Missouri, and an electromechanical implementation of the Game of Nim (using telephone interchange stepping relays).  When he was in about the 8th or 9th grade he designed and built his first computer, using vacuum tubes, 12AX7  dual triodes configured as flip-flops- I still have a notebook in which he drew a schematic of one of the modules to explain it to me.

 

Which leads to the subject of Henry the teacher.  He taught me lots of things- how to ride a bike, how draw a schematic diagram of an electronic circuit, how to use a soldering iron and a slide rule.  I was the only kid in the second grade who knew Ohm’s Law.  When he came back from his first semester at Exeter he tried to teach me German.  And then, of course,  there were the infamous math lessons (which our mother remembers so fondly).  When I was 9 or 10 he decided it was time for me to start learning calculus. Later in life I figured out that he had probably learned calculus by that age, and he wanted to see if I measured up.  Well, I am sorry to have to report that I did not, at least not at the age of 10.  I think I was probably about 12 or 13 myself when I finally realized that Henry was somebody I would never be able to catch up with.  He was always way off there, just over the horizon, and no matter how hard I tried I could just barely keep sight of him.

 

There were years, particularly when I was off in college and graduate school, when most of what I knew about his activities actually came from the news media.  I had a roommate who was a student at the Stanford business school and also an intern at the Palo Alto office of Dow Jones, where they put out the West Coast edition of the Wall Street Journal,  and he would come home and tell me what my brother was up to.  I’d hear things like “Well this week he’s opening up a plant in Thailand”.  Well- I couldn’t even begin to imagine what would be involved in an activity like “opening up a plant in Thailand”- it was all I could do just to keep up with my studies, which in those days amounted to translating Plato and Virgil.  But it was strange at that time to feel that I was related to a celebrity.

 

Now it was always very important to me to know what Henry thought of me.  I think during this period he had pretty much written me off as a hopelessly naïve and liberal hippie type person.  I think he finally decided I was okay when I told him that I’d written some software, an assembly language program that ran on what had been Enrico Fermi’s personal computer (the MANIAC II) down in the basement of the physics building at the University of  Chicago.

 

Now over the years, I have been a student at Harvard, Chicago, Stanford and the University of Massachusetts, where I worked for a professor who won the Nobel Prize in physics; later, I worked about 10 years for MIT at Lincoln Laboratory.  And so I think it’s fair to say that in the course of my life I’ve gotten to know a lot of very smart people.  But, I have never met anybody who even came close to being as clever as that guy  I’d watched disappear over the horizon way back when I was a child.

 

Earlier I mentioned Henry as a teacher.  This is one of his great legacies.  He didn’t just found companies to manufacture products and open up plants in Thailand and provide employment for people.  What he was really doing was running a series of post-graduate schools in which bright people could grow and learn how to carry on and innovate in their own way.  He will be remembered by many people whose lives he touched and inspired in this way.

 

Being remembered by those you have left behind is of course the oldest form of immortality.  It is, for example, the principle component of the Indo-European warrior/poet culture, as evidenced from India to Ireland, from the Mahabharata to Beowulf.  The idea is that as a warrior you achieve everlasting glory by performing some great deed or series of actions that win you an eternal name in the songs of the poets.  For people of our modern era, the deeds of an ancient warrior can be replaced by other activities, but the result is still the same.

 

So I would like to draw an analogy between Henry and a very famous ancient warrior named Achilles, a man who also died at an unseasonably young age.  As you may recall, Achilles was the son of a goddess and of a human father, and so though mortal himself, he was given a gift by Zeus that most people don’t get-  he was allowed to choose the time of his death.  However, like all gifts from those ancient gods, this gift came with a very unpleasant condition.  And that was, that he had to choose between just two predestined  alternatives.  You will have to bear with me while I read his description of this choice in his own words, as reported by Homer (Iliad 9, 410-415):

 

mh/thr ga/r te/ me/ fhsi qea\ Qe/tij a)rguro/peza

dixqadi/aj kh=raj fere/men qana/toio te/loj de/.

ei) me/n k' au)=qi me/nwn Trw/wn po/lin a)mfima/xwmai,

w)/leto me/n moi no/stoj, a)ta\r kle/oj a)/fqiton e)/stai:

ei) de/ ken oi)/kad' i(/kwmi fi/lhn e)j patri/da gai=an,

w)/leto/ moi kle/oj e)sqlo/n, e)pi\ dhro\n de/ moi ai)w\n

In our language, it goes something like this:

 

You know my mother is a goddess, Thetis, the silver-footed one

And she has explained to me that I carry two divergent fates to the end of my days.

On the one hand, if I stay here and continue fighting around the Trojans’ city

My safe homecoming is lost, but my glory will be everlasting.

On the other hand, if I head homewards and arrive back in my beloved country,

My glory is lost, excellent though it was, but my life will long and quiet.

 

The hero of the Iliad was exceptional, he had the talent and courage to take risks and try things that others would not dare to try, to make consequential decisions on the basis of incomplete knowledge, and take responsibility for those decisions, and perhaps even to break the rules sometimes.  And it has been realized almost since the Iliad was composed that it is people like this who provide the driving force behind our civilization.  We can all be grateful that we were lucky enough to have known one of these exceptional people.

 

Achilles’ choices were to die young and be remembered forever, or to live a long boring life in obscurity and then be totally forgotten about.  For a person of that ancient warrior class this choice was no choice at all, it was just another cruel trick played by the gods; a glorious death in battle was the only acceptable course of action.  Well, Henry did not have a choice either.  But long before he became ill he had done enough to ensure that his glory would be everlasting:

kle/oj a)/fqiton e)/stai

 

Bob Burkhardt