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Dick Pick, GIRLS, and the History of Reality

David Kalat

July 8, 2024

Any discussion of arguably the most impressive database system of the 20th Century inevitably involves giggle-inducing names and veers toward Not Safe for Work connotations. Richard “Dick” Pick, creator of GIRLS and the father of Reality, would not have had it any other way.

Pick’s story begins with a military commission in the pitch of the Vietnam War. The US Army was experiencing inventory problems regarding spare parts used to maintain the Cheyenne attack helicopter. The Army needed a better way to track and manage that inventory.  With the aid of fellow systems engineer Don Nelson, Pick developed an innovative and highly efficient computerized data storage and retrieval system. One could call it a multidimensional multiuser NoSQL post-relational database, except none of those terms were in use at the time. Describing Pick’s system using the language of today, however, obscures just how far ahead of its time it was.

Dr. E.F. Codd first proposed relational database design in 1970, and the structured query language (SQL) used to communicate with relational database systems evolved through the decade to be standardized by ANSI and ISO in the 1980s. Pick’s database design associated primary keys with text-based records, subdivided using numerical attribute marks to distinguish individual data elements within a record. This accommodated multivalued attributes for each key without using a set data schema. These features are characteristics of modern NoSQL post-relational database systems.

Pick produced this for the Army in 1965. It was like designing a jet engine before the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk.

Pick gave his computerized database program the cheeky name Generalized Information Retrieval Language System (GIRLS). Unamused, the Army renamed it General Information Management (GIM) and later Integrated Technical Data System (ITDS).

Although the Army was unimpressed by the sophomoric name, the program itself won rave reviews. Nonetheless, despite pronouncing ITDS “by far the finest generalized information management system in the country,” the Army dropped the program before Pick had finished making it.

The problem was not in the software but in the hardware it was meant to support. After escalating technical problems, an experimental Cheyenne helicopter had caught fire and crashed off the coast of Southern California, killing the pilot. The crash was the final straw on the back of a camel that had been failing for some time. The Army cancelled the Cheyenne helicopter project. There was no longer any need to manage inventory of its parts.

Undeterred, Pick decided to finish work on the program and market it commercially. In 1973, Pick licensed his code to the Microdata Corporation, a manufacturer of minicomputers. Microdata ditched the clunky ITDS name and had no interest in Pick’s original GIRLS moniker. Instead, they sold it as the Reality Operating System.

Meanwhile, Pick continued to develop the software on his own. In 1976, after parting ways with Microdata, Pick partnered with a French hardware manufacturer to sell a line of computers called Evolution, built around Pick’s database operating system.

The lawyers at Microdata were alarmed at the prospect of competing against their own product. In 1977 they sued Pick for “misappropriation of trade secrets.” Pick countersued Microdata for antitrust violations. He argued that the “trade secrets” at issue were his own invention in the first place and were based on work that was foundationally in the public domain since ITDS had been developed for the Department of Defense using taxpayer money.

In 1981, the litigants settled their disputes with no money changing hands. Both Reality and the software Pick was now calling DM512 would coexist in the marketplace.

Regardless of its name, Pick had designed a highly efficient, portable, multiuser database system. Unlike the highly specialized tools of its competitors, the Pick system was largely hardware agnostic and ran on both mainframes and minicomputers. The system leveraged the internal persistent memory of its host computer as a virtual memory cache, expanding its capabilities and speed. Its information retrieval language was actually called “English” and featured near-natural language query capabilities.

Many users became fans, and enthusiasts still claim Pick’s system is superior to the relational and post-relational database designs that came in its wake.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.

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David Kalat