Pioneer of German computer science studies

Robert Piloty was born on 6 June 1924 as the son of Hans Piloty and Maria Defregger. Both parents’ families had an artistic background: One paternal great-grandfather was the well-known Munich historical painter Carl Theodor von Piloty (1826–1886), one maternal great-grandfather the landscape painter Franz von Defregger (1835–1921). Robert Piloty grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as senior engineer in the power plants department at AEG starting in 1925.

From winter semester 1942–43 until summer semester 1947, Robert Piloty studied mechanical engineering with a focus on electrical engineering at the Technische Hochschule München, where his father Robert had held a professorship in electrical measurement technology since 1931. His Diplom was conferred with distinction. With it, he successfully applied to participate in a three-month summer school in 1948 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston; he was the only German admitted.

At MIT, Piloty was able to study the development of the “Whirlwind” mainframe computer commissioned by the US Navy. He suddenly had an idea that he could not get out of his head: “This is a new direction, you have to pursue it.” He returned to Germany with the idea to build an electronic computing system at the TH Munich as well, and he procured documents from the US, including John von Neumann’s groundbreaking 1945 report. He was able to set up his experimental circuits at his father’s institute.

Co-initiator of the PERM computing facility

In the fall of 1949, the financing of the project by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft was assured. The Program-Controlled Electronic Computing System (Programmgesteuerte Elektronische Rechenanlage München, PERM) was developed under the overall guidance of his father Hans Piloty and Robert Sauer (professor of mathematics). The project created the necessary hardware and software basis for much further research in the field of computer science, which, at the time, was in its infancy.

In March 1949, having completed his doctorate in engineering with a dissertation on microwave technology, Robert Piloty headed up the hardware-oriented working group as a research assistant. He held lectures on computer engineering at the TH Munich after his habilitation and appointment as lecturer in January 1952.

The PERM was completed in 1956 and was used until March 1974 in the computing center of the TH Munich, later TUM, for research and teaching. For 17 years, it also served as the mainframe computer in the Leibniz Computing Center Munich. Important elements of the PERM were the magnetic core memory and the read-only memory, as well as the modular design of slots and plug-in modules. The logic was tube-based with more than 2,400 vacuums. Both floating point and fixed point numerical representation were possible. The automatic calculating machine enabled an indirect and relative addressing. The internal memory could handle 10,240 words. Today the computer, which was the fastest in the world at the time, is on display at the German Museum in Munich.

Professor in Munich and Darmstadt

In 1955, Robert Piloty went to Zurich as deputy head of IBM’s research laboratory. Two years later, he left IBM for Standard Lorenz Elektrik (SEL) in Stuttgart, where he managed system planning. Together with Karl Steinbuch, he developed a computer for accelerated order processing for the mail-order company Quelle. The first computer-based flight booking system, commissioned by Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) also originated on the basis of this work.

In 1961, Piloty became supernumerary professor at the TH Munich and was appointed to the Chair of Information Processing at the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Technical University Darmstadt in 1964, founding the institute of the same name.

This is a new direction, you have to pursue it.1

 His main fields of research were microwave technology, computer-based circuit design, design databases and hardware description languages. Robert Piloty headed up the international working group Consensus Language (CONLAN), which developed a reference framework for the definition of standardized hardware description languages with precise semantics. With it, computer designs could be simulated; before that, engineers had constructed prototypes and then eliminated errors that occurred.

Advocate of a computer science degree program

In January 1968, as the chairman of a committee set up by the German federal minister of scientific research, Piloty recommended the establishment of computer science programs at selected universities. The idea for systematic, academic education in computer programming was born out of difficulties at Volkswagen AG with its computer programs. He was the co-initiator of the “Nationwide Research Program in Computer Sciences” (1970–79), supported by the Federal Ministry for Research and Technology, which created a number of new positions. Piloty led the expert group.

The “Recommendations of Education in the Field of Information Processing”, which he co-wrote, served as the foundation for the program. Under Piloty’s management, the committee cooperated closely with industry representatives. At the TH Darmstadt, he chaired the Senate Commission set up in 1968 on establishing a degree program in computer science. Initially, there was debate about whether the new subject should be part of mathematics or electrical engineering. Piloty favored founding an independent department and took a trip to the US lasting a number of weeks together with his colleague Hartmut Wedekind in the spring of 1969 to study the possibilities for implementation.

Later, he was a member of the founding committee of the Department of Computer Science established in 1972 at TU Darmstadt. His efforts were not devoid of tension, however, since as a conservative professor he had to consider the particularly progressive demands of students, especially in Hesse, for the reform of universities and higher education.

Projects, memberships and honors

In 1983, Piloty initiated the project on the development of integrated circuitry (Projekt Entwicklung Integrierter Schaltung, E. I. S.). The objective of the project, which was supported for six years by the BMFT, was to introduce this important topic into the curriculum. Computer science and electrical engineering students were able to draw up their own drafts with a very high degree of integration and have them produced.

Robert Piloty was a founding member of the German Society for Computer Science (Gesellschaft für Informatik e. V., GI), founded in 1969. As a member of the general assembly, and later as the vice president of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), he also represented German computer science at the international level.

His publications include the standard work “Basics of electronic digital circuitries” (“Grundlagen elektronischer Digitalschaltungen2 1981; together with Wolfgang Hilberg), the CONLAN Report (1982; together with other authors) and the book “The Secret of Success of the Internet (“Das Erfolgsgeheimnis des Internet” 2002).

Robert Piloty received a number of prestigious awards, from the IFIP Silver Core (1980) to the Federal Cross of Merit (1985), the Konrad Zuse Medal (1989), the Erasmus Kittler Medal of the TU Darmstadt (1991), the Fellowship of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers/IEEE (1997), the Alwin Walther Medal of the TU Darmstadt (2000) to the Carl Friedrich Gauß Medal from Braunschweig’s scientific society (2001). In 1993, he became a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. The renovated computer science building at the TU Darmstadt was named after him in 2004.

Robert Piloty was married and had two children. He retired as professor emeritus in 1990. On 21 January 2013, he died in Darmstadt at the age of 88.

1. Zit. nach Robert Piloty. Interview mit dem Initiator der Informatik an der TUD, in: Anika Schröter: Große Namen in Darmstadt, Frankfurt a. M. 2011, S. 142.