News Release

John Cocke

John CockeAs World War II drew to a close in 1945, Duke University graduated fifty-two engineers from its College of Engineering. In the forty-three years of development since, Dr. John M. Cocke, one of those graduates in mechanical engineering, has opened new doors in computer design and enjoyed a remarkable career. He also continues to support Duke through service and contributions.

Cocke, born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1925, returned to Duke to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1956. He then joined the Research Division of International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) and has remained there since. Cocke is well known for his contributions to the field of optimizing compilers, which convert commands from languages such as Pascal or C into the binary code of machine language that the computer understands. He is also interested in systems architecture and has focused efforts on program optimization and hardware design.

In 1975, at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, Cocke and his colleagues devised remarkable new concepts in computer design which formed the basis for RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) technology. Cocke originated the concept behind RISC, which reduces computer instructions from multiple to single cycle sets, thus increasing efficiency. Complex instructions are constructed by stringing together many simple commands which are then continuously fed into the machine. As a result, the execution time is significantly shorter since the central processing unit is always working. This was not the case with other computers at that time. The technology provided by RISC is now used by many companies in addition to IBM. For example, the IBM RT Personal Computer microprocessor uses RISC and allows IBM researchers to simulate motion in three dimensions and produce other sophisticated graphical representations. The development of RISC is quite an achievement for Cocke and IBM.

A highlight of Cocke’s career occurred when the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) presented him with the 1987 ACM A. M. Turing Award for Computer Science Inventions, the highest award offered by ACM for technical contributions in the computing community. Cocke received the award based on his contributions in three areas of computer science: the development of RISC computers, the design and theory of compilers, and the architecture of large systems. He was then named an IBM Fellow in 1972 and received several other corporate awards. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1979, he also received the ACM/IEEE Computer Society Eckert-Mauchly Award in 1985. Cocke holds various patents on computer systems, and has published numerous essays and books. His paper, A Program Data Flow Analysis Procedure written with IBM colleague E E. Allen, was awarded the 1976 Programming Systems & Languages Award by the ACM. In addition to his other honors, Cocke is a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.

Cocke is an active alumnus, contributing both his time and financial assistance to Duke. He is a member of the Board of Visitors of the School of Engineering, the Engineering Dean’s Council and has also contributed to the Nello L. Teer Engineering Library Building fund. Dean Dowell comments that Cocke, "is a warm, witty, and brilliant scientist who has made fundamental contributions to computer engineering."

Aside from being a distinguished Duke graduate, Cocke holds some interesting family ties to the university. His father, Norman Atwater Cocke, was an associate of James B. Duke and became one of the founding members of the Duke Endowment, established in 1924. Cocke Sr. was a chairman of the Board of Trustees and received an honorary degree from the university in 1962. His son William, John’s brother, also attended Duke and graduated in 1941.

Certainly Cocke is a well respected scientist who has also found time to contribute to his alma mater. At this May’s Commencement, John Cocke, like his father, will receive an honorary degree from the university. This is Duke’s highest honor and conveys the university’s recognition of and pride in his achievements. Cocke is the first engineering graduate to receive an honorary degree from Duke, and it is entirely appropriate that this honor go to such a deserving recipient with an extraordinary record of accomplishments.


By Eileen Bryn

Eileen Bryn is a sophomore in electrical engineering.