John Cocke was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1925. He received a BS in mechanical engineering (1946) and a PhD in mathematics (1956), both from Duke University.
An IBM employee for 37 years (1956-1993), Cocke made major contributions to compiler optimization and devised the concept of the reduced instruction set computer (RISC).
Cocke recognized that powerful special-purpose compilers could compensate for the simplicity of RISC hardware, resulting in high-performance computers. While the instruction sets of most computers were becoming ever more complex, Cocke's philosophy went against the prevailing wisdom, but has proven to be very successful.
The breakthrough project came in 1974, when Cocke and his team started to design a telecom computer which became known as the "801" minicomputer, named after the building in which his team worked. The project fell through, but the 801 led eventually to the RISC-based IBM PC RT introduced in 1985. The RISC design philosophy is now used in nearly every computational device made, especially mobile devices.
Among his many achievements, Cocke was made an IBM Fellow in 1972, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology (1991), the ACM Turing Award (1987), and the National Medal of Science (1994). He passed away in 2002.