John Cocke is, quite possibly, the most important inventor in modern computing alive today. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1925, he earned his PhD from Duke University in Mathematics in 1956. In 1957, he began working for IBM, where he stayed his entire career.
In 1974, Cocke's research team was working to create a telephone switching network that could handle a load of up to 300 calls per second. Cocke observed that the system was delayed with expensive instructions such as multiply and divide, which, while important, were used rarely (perhaps 2% of the time). Cocke used what he calls "numerical tricks" to take simpler, low-level binary instructions and construct more complicated functions. These building block functions were stored in an "instruction cache", allowing quick access to all of the necessary components for more complex functions. The simplicity of Cocke's RISC processor design had many benefits, as clock speeds could be increased, and compilers could operate on a much smaller problem set.
The first general purpose RISC processor was completed in 1975 and was named the 801, for the building in which the team worked at the Thomas Watson Research Center. IBM waited until the 80's to use the RISC processor in the RS/6000 series computers, but Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems put RISC processor designs to use in very short order. RISC architecture went on to power the most substantial processors of the micro-computer era, including the Motorola 68000 series, PowerPC, Digital Alpha, IA64, MIPS series, and even the pre-translation cores of the K6, p2/3/4.
Before his recent retirement, Cocke earned over 20 legitimate patents, and advanced the field immeasurably. His ideas and attitudes remain at IBM today. Co-workers say that Cocke was eccentric in the extreme, staying at the office many days on end, his team often doing the same. He had to be constantly reminded by accounting to cash his paychecks, and a custodian once found over $4000 of stock certificates in Cocke's trash, as Cocke had absent-mindedly thrown them out while cleaning. Cocke also made contributions in coding theory, logic simulation, and optimization. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 and the National Medal of Science in 1994. John Cocke should be remembered by all in the computer industry and many outside of it, a hero, but, far too often, he isn't.