23 April 2003 Dr Edgar ‘Ted’ Codd, the inventor of relational database whose ideas inspired IBM’s core database product DB2 and provided the basis for the Oracle software empire, has died of heart failure aged 79.
The British-born mathematician and computer scientist revolutionised database software design in the 1970s while working at IBM’s San Jose research laboratory by proposing a design based on mathematical set theory.
In place of the then prevalent hierarchical database approach, in which the structure of data had to be defined within each application program, Codd’s relational database used a new query language (SQL) to access any permutation of data stored in cross-referenced tables.
His theory was eventually adopted by IBM in the 1980s, but only when company CEO Frank Cary overruled vested interests within IBM that continued to favour the IMS hierarchical database system.
Others were less encumbered and Codd’s seminal paper ‘A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks’ was the basis for several companies including Oracle, Relational Technology (which later became Ingres) and Sybase.
Long-time colleague and business partner Chris Date told the New York Times that Codd should have seen more than recognition from his pioneering work and his evangelism for the adoption of relational databases. “The sad thing is that Ted never became rich out of his idea,” said Date. “Other people did, but not Ted.”
Codd, an Oxford graduate and an RAF pilot during World War II, was not afraid to follow his convictions. In 1953, five years after joining IBM in New York, he showed his dismay with the US anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the UnAmerican Activities Committee by moving to Canada for several years.
After returning to IBM in 1967, he spent two decades laying the foundation for relational database management systems (RDBMS), as they became known. In the late 1980s, he formed his own consulting companies, Codd and Date and the Relational Institute, to drive the adoption of his ’13 commandments’, a set of rules that bona fide relational products were supposed to follow.
During the so-called ‘relational wars’ of the 1980s and early 1990s, those rules provided much ammunition for relational vendors in their fight to overthrow the hierarchical intransigents — as well as ensuring dream opportunities for headline writers, such as ‘Codd wallops Cullinet’ and ‘Codd batters ADR’.
His legacy is guaranteed, says Date: “A hundred years from now, I’m quite sure, database systems will still be based on Codd’s relational foundation.”