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Jean Ichbiah, 66; designed landmark computer language


Reflecting on how he created the Ada computer language for the US Defense Department, Jean D. Ichbiah invoked images that soared beyond the computer keyboard.

"I see myself really as an architect," he said in a 1984 interview with Communications of the ACM , a computer trade journal . "My work was not to invent new things; it was not research work, it was architectural work. I had to integrate the best available materials to construct the building that would best suit the requirements of the users."

Dr. Ichbiah, who viewed the Ada language "as a cathedral with all the architectural lines interwoven in a harmonious manner," died of cancer Jan. 26 in his Burlington home. He was 66.

Dr. Ichbiah founded companies in France and Burlington after designing Ada, which has been used in many areas of government.

"He was the right person at the right time for the Defense Department project of designing a standard language for the American government," said Jacques Cohen, a computer science professor at Brandeis University. "It was a major work. I don't think this could happen again because languages are designed by teams of people, hardly by a single individual."

Born in Paris, Dr. Ichbiah was the grandson of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Greece and Turkey and survived World War II by hiding with his family on an estate in southern France.

Majoring in civil engineering, he graduated in 1962 from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. Two years later he married Marianne Kleen and began doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"He got his PhD at MIT in two years, which was record time," Cohen said. "He was a very focused person."

Dr. Ichbiah took his doctorate in civil engineering and operations research and went home to France, where he worked as a computer scientist for a French company that later was affiliated with Honeywell in the United States. While working for CII Honeywell Bull he became the chief designer of the Ada language, which he created in the late 1970s and early '80s.

The language was named after Augusta Ada King, the countess of Lovelace in England beginning in the mid-1830s. By most accounts she wrote the description of the analytical engine, an invention of British mathematician Charles Babbage that is widely viewed as having anticipated computers.

"There was a Babel of languages here," Cohen said of the early 1970s, when the Defense Department decided to seek a standard computer language.

Creating Ada, Cohen said, took more than just the intellectual skills Dr. Ichbiah brought to the project.

" He was able to take so many ideas from different people and he was able to come up with something that was positive, very well designed," Cohen said. "It had to satisfy different interests, so he was persistent in keeping his views, while at the same time listening to what other people were saying."

"The French humorist Pierre Dac once said, 'The Leaden Rule is: shoot first, aim second, think later.' That is precisely what was done in developing previous computer languages," Dr. Ichbiah told Communications of the ACM, the monthly publication of the Association for Computing Machinery.

"Ada represents the first instance in the history of programming languages of things being done in the right order," he added. "That is an important sign of the maturing of this profession."

Dr. Ichbiah, Cohen said, also had the foresight to anticipate a key change in the maturing of the computer field.

"In the '80s, no one would pay attention to a personal computer, so people designed things for IBM machines that were mainframe computers, not desktop machines," Cohen said. "But Jean saw better than anyone that the era of the personal computer was coming."

Dr. Ichbiah was awarded the French Legion of Honor and was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, Cohen said. He added that his friend was also awarded a certificate of distinguished service from the Defense Department for his work on Ada.

"He was a very persistent, tenacious person," Cohen said. "He took the job as building something that would last for years."

In addition to his wife, Dr. Ichbiah leaves a son, Emmanuel; two daughters, Helena and Myriam Hajeri, who live in France, as do his six grandchildren; and four brothers, Victor, Raymond, Marc, and Daniel.

A service has been held.