In memoriam: Al Brenner, Fermilab “father of computing”

Al Brenner

Former Fermilab scientist Al Brenner died on April 13 in Washington, D.C. He died peacefully from a head injury from a January fall at the Kennedy Center in D.C., from which he did not completely recover. He was 88. Al was one of the original members of the Fermilab scientific staff. He came from Harvard where he was both developing and teaching advanced computing techniques for high-energy physics. He was a member of several experiments in the lab’s first decades but was best known as the father of computing at Fermilab.

Al brought the first large computing facilities to Fermilab, a pair of CDC 6600 mainframes surplussed by Berkeley Lab in the mid-1970s, after convincing then Fermilab director Bob Wilson that this was a good thing for the lab to do. This was a huge upgrade from the PDP-10 timesharing machine, which Fermilab got from the Princeton-Penn Accelerator when it closed. Al led the Computing Department in the Research Division through the 1970s and early 1980s in a period when computing was in great flux, with everything from mainframes to single-board microcomputers seen as potential solutions to Fermilab’s need for enormous growth in computing capability. In spite of Al’s best efforts, the growth of offline computing was hard to come by; Bob Wilson was unconvinced.

Under Al’s leadership, support for online computing resources at the experiments was strong from the beginning. Every experiment got a PDP-11 and the hardware, software and support to make data acquisition at Fermilab experiments effective and powerful. Al’s common systems approach led to everything from front-end electronics (CAMAC) to data acquisition and monitoring software (MULTI) available and supported, relieving the users of the need to develop their own less robust and less reliable systems.

Al Brenner, Computing Department head, in 1980.

Overall Al’s leadership was important in shaping Fermilab’s computing future. He was a leader of the effort to bring to Fermilab the home, and data center, of the Hubble Space Telescope. He was instrumental in securing the support and funding for the Feynman Computing Center, including the computers that went inside — a budgetary innovation for the time. Al left the lab later in the 1980s to direct the John von Neumann supercomputing center in Princeton, New Jersey, and then work for many years at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, until his retirement.

Al was a patron of the arts, heading the lab’s new Auditorium Committee during its first season of public events while Arthur and Janice Roberts, the initiators of the idea, were on sabbatical in England. He was a lifetime enthusiast of classical music, opera and travel.

Al came to Fermilab via Brooklyn, New York, MIT, and Harvard. No one would describe him as quiet or humble but definitely as smart and articulate. He was intensely curious about many things and had a very lively intellect. He was well-known for saying no to all user requests; but then, magically, you got some of the help you needed anyway. He was an effective experimental and computational physicist and a mentor to several of us in both Physics and Computing.

Read Brenner’s obituary.

Scientists Jeffrey Appel, Joel Butler, Peter Cooper, Hugh Montgomery and Chris Quigg are colleagues and friends of Al Brenner.