NY Times, Apr. 23, 2003
Edgar Codd, Key Theorist of Databases, Dies at 79
By KATIE HAFNER
Edgar F. Codd, a mathematician and computer scientist who laid the
theoretical foundation for relational databases, the standard method by
which information is organized in and retrieved from computers, died on
Friday at his home in Williams Island, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Sharon B. Codd.
Computers can store vast amounts of data. But before Dr. Codd's work
found its way into commercial products, electronic databases were
"completely ad hoc and higgledy-piggledy," said Chris Date, a database
expert and former business partner of Dr. Codd's, who was known as Ted.
Dr. Codd's idea, based on mathematical set theory, was to store data in
cross-referenced tables, allowing the information to be presented in
multiple permutations. For instance, a user could ask the computer for a
list of all baseball players from both the National League and the
American League with batting averages over .300.
Relational databases now lie at the heart of systems ranging from
hospitals' patient records to airline flights and schedules.
While working as a researcher at the I.B.M. San Jose Research Laboratory
in the 1960's and 70's, Dr. Codd wrote several papers outlining his
ideas. To his frustration, I.B.M. largely ignored his work, as the
company was investing heavily at the time in commercializing a different
type of database system.
"His approach was not, shall we say, welcomed with open arms at I.B.M.,"
said Harwood Kolsky, a physicist who worked with Dr. Codd at I.B.M. in
the 1950's and 60's. "It was a revolutionary approach."
It was not until 1978 that Frank T. Cary, then chairman and chief
executive of I.B.M., ordered the company to build a product based on Dr.
Codd's ideas. But I.B.M. was beaten to the market by Lawrence J.
Ellison, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who used Dr. Codd's papers as
the basis of a product around which he built a start-up company that has
since become the Oracle Corporation.
"The sad thing is that Ted never became rich out of his idea," Mr. Date
said. "Other people did, but not Ted."
Edgar Frank Codd was born the youngest of seven children in Portland
Bill, in Dorset, England, in 1923. His father was a leather
manufacturer, his mother a schoolteacher.
He attended Oxford University on a full scholarship, studying
mathematics and chemistry. During World War II, he was a pilot with the
Royal Air Force. In 1948 he moved to New York and, hearing that I.B.M.
was hiring mathematicians, obtained a job there as a researcher.
A few years later, in 1953, angered by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's
pursuit of Americans he said had Communist ties or sympathies, Dr. Codd
moved to Ottawa for several years.
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