14 tech luminaries we lost in 2021

We honor the IT pioneers who created the tech we use every day.

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Sir Clive Sinclair: Lit Up the Spectrum

July 30, 1940 – September 6, 2021

Clive Sinclair in 1992 Adrian Pingstone

Clive Sinclair in 1992

In 1961, a young Clive Sinclair was developing and selling pocket calculators, digital wristwatches, and mail-order radio kits through his own company, Sinclair Radionics. In 1975, he founded the company that would become Sinclair Research and began development of the electronics he would best be known for.

The Sinclair ZX80 personal computer debuted in 1980. True to his radio-building background, Sinclair marketed the computer in both kit form for £80 ($108) or preassembled for £100 ($135). It was one of the first computers available at that price point, especially compared to the likes of the Apple II Plus, released a year earlier for $1,195. The ZX80 was followed by the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum at similar price points. The affordability and availability of these machines contributed to the United Kingdom leading the world in personal computer adoption in the 1980s.

Sinclair’s machines were popular beyond industry and education; whereas the United States’ video game boom came from Atari and Nintendo consoles, the United Kingdom saw games being played on the ZX Spectrum, with over 3,500 commercial and homebrew games available by 1984.

Not all Sinclair’s innovations were successes, though: the impractical Sinclair C5 electric vehicle was a commercial failure but is considered by some to have been ahead of its time.

Sir Clive Sinclair was knighted in 1983. He was 81 when he died of cancer.

Debi Coleman: Left Her Signature on the World

January 22, 1952 – October 15, 2021

Debi Coleman The Coleman Family

Debi Coleman

Debi Coleman left HP in 1981 so she “could be part of something that would change the world,” according to her sister, Erin Isselmann.

Coleman joined Apple as a controller ahead of the 1984 debut of the Macintosh. Her signature is inscribed inside the case of the Macintosh 128K, along with that of Steve Jobs and the rest of the original Macintosh team. “She was proud to be a part of a team of people that was focused on making it easier for everyone to use a personal computer,” Isselmann told Computerworld.

As Apple’s vice president for operations, Coleman went on to automate Apple’s California factory before serving as chief financial officer, then vice president of information systems and technology — all in an era when women had few leadership opportunities in Silicon Valley.

Coleman left Apple in 1992 and moved to Oregon to serve as vice president of operations and materials at Tektronix, later becoming CEO of circuit board manufacturer Merix. In 2001, she co-founded venture capital firm SmartForest Ventures, which nurtured technology startups in the Pacific Northwest. A champion of women in tech, Coleman served on the boards of the Anita Borg Institute for Women Technologists and the regional Girl Scouts. She earned the Technology Association of Oregon’s lifetime achievement award just a month before passing at age 69.

William Cook: Apple Automation

November 21, 1963 – October 27, 2021

William Cook University of Texas at Austin

William Cook

After receiving a PhD in computer science from Brown University, Cook joined HP Labs, where he researched the foundations of object-oriented languages. It wasn’t long before an organizational restructuring had Cook considering a shift in focus to practical applications. Despite having never used a Mac, he accepted an invitation from Apple engineer Kurt Piersol to develop AppleScript, an inter-application communication language that allows users to automate repetitive tasks.

Cook, working with Warren Harris and others, had his work cut out for him. “AppleScript required a fundamental refactoring, or at least augmentation, of almost the entire Macintosh code base,” he recalled.

Introduced in 1993 with Mac OS System 7.1.1, AppleScript is still included with macOS today. Macworld gave AppleScript its 1998 Technology of the Year award, noting, “AppleScript is, in numerous ways, the lifeblood of the Mac OS,” and in 2006 the publication ranked AppleScript among the 30 most significant Apple products to date.

Though Cook acknowledged that “it is impossible to identify one individual as the originator of the AppleScript vision,” he was nonetheless the chief architect of a project he described as “a practical system used by millions of people around the world.”

After later serving as CTO and VP at numerous startups, Cook joined the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 as an assistant, then associate, professor of computer science. He was 57 when he died.

Jay T. Last: A Traitorous One

October 18, 1929 – November 11, 2021

jay last at archaeological site The Archaeological Conservancy

Jay T. Last in the mid-1980s.

Upon earning a PhD in physics from MIT, Jay Last was recruited to move across the country and work at Shockley Semiconductor. A year later in 1957, he would join a mutiny that would give birth to Silicon Valley.

Recruiting seven other scientists and engineers who suffered under William Shockley’s mismanagement, Last and crew left to found Fairchild Semiconductor. This core group, known as the “traitorous eight,” developed the silicon chips that now power all computers and digital devices, enabling the digital revolution.

Some Fairchild employees later founded Intel, while Last and others started Amelco. Last ascended to vice president of R&D for Amelco’s parent company, Teledyne, before leaving Silicon Valley in 1974.

Last was an author and avid art collector who donated works to museums and libraries. In 1980, he co-founded The Archaeological Conservancy, which has preserved more than 500 endangered sites across the US.

Last was 92.

Jim Warren: Con Artist

July 20, 1936 – Nov 24, 2021

Jim Warren in 2010 Malee Warren (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Jim Warren in 2010

Whether in print, at events, or on the air, Jim Warren was an entrepreneur in any medium. He was in his early forties working as a computer consultant in Silicon Valley when he and Bob Reiling launched an annual computer convention. The first West Coast Computer Faire was held in 1977 to great acclaim: nearly twice as many enthusiasts showed up as Warren expected, leading him to later comment, “The first Computer Faire was to the hardware hackers an event comparable to Woodstock in the movement of the sixties.” It was at that inaugural event that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs debuted the Apple II.

A year later, after serving as the first editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, Warren tried his hand at publishing his own periodical, the Intelligent Machines Journal. He quickly tired of the venture and, at the 1979 West Coast Computer Faire, offered the publication to IDG founder Pat McGovern, who renamed it InfoWorld.

Freed from publishing, Warren turned to broadcast as a founding host of Computer Chronicles, Stewart Cheifet’s PBS series on consumer technology that ran for nearly 20 years, from 1983 to 2002.

Warren was also an activist who campaigned for free digital access to government records and founded the Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy in 1991. He was 85 when he died of lung cancer.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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