Posted in: IBM Research-Almaden

As the Turing Award turns 50, honoring recipient Ted Codd

The Association for Computer Machinery’s (ACM) Turing Award is given annually for major contributions of lasting importance to computing. It’s become the most prestigious technical award in the field, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of computing.” This week, both the ACM and IBM are celebrating 50 years of the Turing Award and its recognition of computing’s greatest achievements.

Ted Codd

Turing Award recipient, IBM Fellow and mathematician Ted Codd, known for his invention of the relational model for database management

I’m an IBM Fellow working in IBM Research, where my main focus is on applying theory to practice. A Fellow is IBM’s recognition of pre-eminent technical distinction. Among all 289 Fellows named since 1963, five are recipients of the Turing Award (with six total IBM Turing laureates). Notable among these to me is my hero and mentor Ted Codd, who took me under his wing when I first arrived at the IBM Almaden Research Lab in 1975.

IBM Turing Laureates

  • 2006: Frances E. Allen
  • 1999: Frederick P. Brooks
  • 1987: John Cocke
  • 1981: Edgar (Ted) F. Codd
  • 1979: Kenneth E. Iverson
  • 1977: John Backus

Ted’s warm support meant the world to me.  Years later, I named my youngest son Teddy because of all the strong positive connotations the name Ted meant to me.

Ted was named an IBM Fellow in 1976 and in 1981 he received the Turing Award, largely based on his invention of the relational database. The relational model of databases is one of the great success stories of computer science.  Many people do not realize what an ad hoc mess databases were like before Ted dramatically changed the playing field with his invention of the relational model.

Ted created a new world of data independence. Database users would no longer have to be specialists, nor would they need to know where the information was or how the computer retrieved it. They could now concentrate more on their businesses and less on their computers.

Ted did everything necessary to make the relational model succeed.  First, he laid such a solid mathematical foundation for it that theorists like me could have a field day deriving results about it, practitioners could obtain clean and efficient implementations of it, and users could understand it intuitively and use it effectively.

The elegant framework Ted laid out was — in mathematical terminology — necessary, but not sufficient for the success of the relational model.  Beautiful and brilliant ideas do not automatically succeed.

Ted Codd

This diagram shows how users interact with a relational database

There was a great deal of opposition to the relational model by entrenched interests, both inside and outside of IBM. In addition to the deep understanding of the issues and the intellectual power that led him to derive the relational model, Ted needed to call on some of his other strengths to succeed in the next phase of the battle. Ted needed the intense inner resolve to aggressively and effectively fight for his technical beliefs.  He needed the clarity of vision and the eloquence to make a compelling case against objection after objection. And he needed the courage to stand up to strong opponents, including his own management in IBM. A lesser man could not have succeeded.

Most of the transactions we routinely make today — using bank accounts and credit cards, trading stock, making travel reservations and participating in online auctions — use relational databases based on the abstract and sophisticated mathematical theory that Ted first published in 1970. I and so many others continue to build on the significant foundation he laid. I’m eternally grateful for his personal and professional contributions in my life.

Today, at IBM’s Watson West in San Francisco, IBM is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Turing Awards by featuring talks from some of IBM Research’s most interesting as well as up-and-coming, millennial researchers as they share their passion for changing the world as we know it. By applying computer science to AI in new and creative ways, these scientists are innovating diverse industries, including genomics, food safety, chemistry, healthcare and the arts. Stay tuned to the IBM Research blog for videos showcasing these researchers as they present their ideas at the event.

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Ronald Fagin

IBM Fellow