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Charles Bachman, GE engineer and business software innovator, dies at 92

Charles Bachman, GE engineer and business software innovator, dies at 92

'A lot of what he designed lives on, in a new guise, today'
Charles Bachman, GE engineer and business software innovator, dies at 92
Photographer: Shutterstock

Charles W. Bachman, an engineer who created software to harness business data in the early 1960s, laying a technical foundation for modern digital commerce, died Thursday at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was 92.

His daughter Chandini Bachman confirmed his death.

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Bachman was a pioneer in the field of database management software. His work would later be eclipsed by that of other innovators, and software tools have changed drastically over the years. But behind every product search on Amazon, movie recommendation on Netflix or bid on eBay, there is a flood of digital communications mediated by database management software, which owes an intellectual debt to Bachman.

He was working for General Electric when he developed a layer of software that allowed programmers to retrieve data for an automated manufacturing system that controlled a variety of tasks — production scheduling, parts ordering and inventory management.

His Integrated Data Store software, first demonstrated in 1963, made it possible to share data across different applications. That capability had been talked about before, but Bachman was the first to carry it out.

His software was crucial to converting the GE manufacturing-control system from an idea to a reality, an impressive technical feat given the limitations of the primitive computers at the time.

In 1973, Bachman received the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery for his contributions to database technology. The award is often described as the Nobel Prize for computer science. In 2014, Bachman visited the White House to receive a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

Bachman was the first Turing Award recipient who did not have a Ph.D. The earlier winners of the prize, which was first issued in 1966, had academic backgrounds, mainly as mathematicians or physicists. Bachman had degrees in mechanical engineering, a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State College and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Bachman spent his career in the business world at a series of companies large and small, including Dow Chemical, GE, Honeywell and a startup backed by venture capital in the 1980s.

Yet it was the application of computing to business problems — rather than business itself — that Bachman found appealing.

“He was always an engineer at heart,” said Thomas Haigh, a technology historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who interviewed Bachman for an oral history project and studied his work. “He was motivated by the joy of tinkering with complex systems and making things work better.”

Charles William Bachman III was born Dec. 11, 1924, in Manhattan, Kansas, the second of four children of Grace Marie Cary Bachman and Charles W. Bachman Jr. His father was the football coach at Kansas State College, and later at Michigan State.

The younger Bachman grew to be a sturdy 6 feet 4 inches, and he inherited his father’s fondness for sports, but his real passion was building and fixing things. “I was always going to be an engineer,” Bachman told Haigh in 2004.

Bachman graduated early from high school, took spring and summer courses at Michigan State and then joined the Army in 1943, serving two years in the artillery corps in New Guinea, Australia and the Philippines. Anti-aircraft guns at the time used simple mechanical computers to target a plane’s predicted flight path, a rudimentary primer for Bachman’s later work.

After the war, Bachman returned to Michigan State to complete his undergraduate degree in 1948. The following year, he married Constance Hadley, shortly after she graduated from Michigan State. They were married for 62 years. She died in 2012.

Besides his daughter Chandini, Bachman is survived by a brother, J. Cary; three other children, Thomas, Jonathan and Sara Bachman Ducey; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Bachman began his engineering career with big companies that were starting to use computers — Dow Chemical, GE and Honeywell, which bought GE’s computer business in 1970. During that time, Bachman took a leading role in computing organizations, which were establishing standards for how data is represented, shared and modeled.

Later in his career, Bachman worked for smaller companies and started one of his own, Bachman Information Systems, in 1983. The startup focused on a technology called computer-aided software engineering. It was intended to make creating software easier by offering programmers graphical tools instead of requiring them to write code line by line. His company attracted funding from two leading venture capital firms, Venrock and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and it enjoyed some early success. It sold shares in a public offering in 1991, and its stock price surged for a while.

The young company had some impressive technology. But it failed to catch the shift to personal computers running Microsoft’s Windows software and lower-cost applications programs. The remnants of Bachman Information Systems went through a couple of mergers and eventually sold to a larger corporation.

“Charlie was always the architect, not a managerial CEO type,” said Jonathan Bachman, a software project manager who worked with his father for years. “And a lot of what he designed lives on, in a new guise, today.”

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