Brooks received a bachelor’s degree (1953) in physics from Duke University and a doctorate (1956) in applied mathematics from Harvard University, where he studied under the computer pioneer Howard Aiken. After finishing his doctorate, Brooks joined IBM, where he worked on the IBM 7030 (known as Stretch), a supercomputer ordered by the U.S. National Security Agency for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Together with Dura Sweeney, Brooks invented the computer’s interrupt system, which is used to recognize different computing “events” that require immediate attention and to synchronize the activities of multiple programs or input/output devices. Brooks also managed the development of the IBM OS/360 operating system and its associated family of computers. In this capacity Brooks was responsible for selecting the 8-bit byte as the basic addressable unit and the inclusion of a complete set of alphanumeric characters, features that were adopted in nearly all subsequent computers.
Brooks left IBM in 1965, having founded the computer science department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the previous year; he served as chair until 1984 and was Kenan Professor of Computer Science. His research interests have included human-computer interaction, three-dimensional computer graphics, and especially virtual reality, where he has led in the creation of scientific visualization tools. For example, Brooks built the first molecular graphics system to solve the physical structure of a new protein.
Brooks was the author, with Kenneth E. Iverson, of "Automatic Data Processing" (1963), "The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering" (1975), and, with Gerrit A. Blaauw, "Computer Architecture: Concepts and Evolution" (1997) and "Computer Architecture: A Computer Zoo" (1997).
Brooks was elected to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE; 1968), the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (1976), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1976), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM; 1994), the British Computer Society (1994), the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering (1994), and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2001). He also served on various civilian bodies that advised the U.S. military, including the Defense Science Board (1983–86), the Artificial Intelligence Task Force (1983–84), the Computers in Simulation and Training Task Force (1986–87), and the National Science Board (1987–92). He was chairman of the Military Software Task Force (1985–87).
In addition to the Turing Award, Brooks received the IEEE McDowell Award (1970), the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1982), the U.S. National Medal of Technology (1985), the IEEE Harry Goode Memorial Award (1989), the IEEE John von Neumann Medal (1993), the ACM Allen Newell Award (1994), the Franklin Institute Bower Award and Prize in Science (1995), and the ACM/IEEE Eckert-Mauchly Award (2004).