Tech luminaries we lost in 2014

These 23 men and women helped shape the tech industry as we know it.

In Memoriam
Getty Images / IDG

Some reached for the stars. Others had two feet on the ground. They were pioneers, inventors, rocket scientists, authors, scholars and entrepreneurs. You might not know their names, but you know their products, their companies and their legacies.

In 2014, the tech industry lost many of its most-cherished members — including two of Computerworld's own: our revered founder Patrick McGovern and beloved news editor Mike Bucken, both of whom are deeply missed. Here we look at 23 women and men who left a lasting impact on how we live and work.

Hans Meuer: High-performance computist

June 1936 – January 2014

Computers are better when networked. So, too, are computer scientists — and Hans Meuer is the one who brought them together.

In 1986, Meuer — a professor of computer science at the University of Mannheim, Germany, and an evangelist for high-performance computing (HPC) — founded the annual convention Supercomputing Europe. The event later broadened to a global scope as the International Supercomputing Conference, uniting the industry's foremost thinkers and developers.

Meuer encouraged his colleagues to not just collaborate, but compete. In 1993, he began ranking the 500 most powerful computers in the world. The TOP500 list is updated twice annually and is used by companies and countries to competitively chart their progress.

Meuer's work brought people and technologies together, and his list and conference continue. He was 77.

Thelma Estrin: Global pioneer

February 1924 – February 2014

Thelma Estrin wasn’t one to sit idly by and let her husband Gerald (1921–2012) do all the work; when he entered the Army in World War II, she went to school for engineering, eventually earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1951.

Together, Thelma and Gerald were pioneers, building the first computer in the Middle East in 1954. Her later work took her into the field of biomedical engineering: she joined the UCLA Brain Research Institute and later, at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, studied EEG patterns in patients with epilepsy.

Estrin published several papers advocating that the field of computer science encompass more gender equality. Her and her husband's work is a testament to the power of collaboration. She was 89.

James Nolan "Jim" Weirich: A ruby in the rough

November 1956 – February 2014

Jim Weirich, chief scientist at agile development firm Neo Innovation, was a renowned Ruby developer. His most popular utility, "rake," brought the functionality of Unix's "make" command to Ruby. Said one user of rake, "It is reliable, simple, and just one of the most amazingly useful tools ever built. If I'm the carpenter, then rake is ... my hammer." Rake is now included with Mac OS X.

Weirich was a vibrant, funny, multitalented gentleman. In addition to teaching and speaking at conferences, he would often perform his original song, "Has Anybody Seen My Code?" on the ukulele.

A scholarship fund has been established in Weirich's name to support students in computer science. He was 57.

Aaron Allston: The Force was strong with this one

December 1960 – February 2014

Disney may have decided that Star Wars books and games aren't canon, but that doesn't diminish the work of those who contributed to that universe. Such is Aaron Allston, whose novels kicked off the sweeping Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi sagas. He also wrote two hardcover sequels to the film Terminator 3.

Allston's work extended to games as well. He wrote several role-playing game rulebooks and supplements and helped developed the fantasy world of Mystara, a setting for many early adventures from Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR.

Said fellow fantasy and Star Wars author R.A. Salvatore, "One of the best things about working in the Galaxy Far, Far Away was getting to know Aaron." Allston was 53.

Jack Kinzler: Mr. Fix It

January 1920 – March 2014

When your parents' computer breaks, they call the family geek. Who does NASA call when their Skylab breaks? Mr. Fix It, as Jack Kinzler was known at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, where he was the chief (1961-1977) of the Technical Services Center, which he founded.

When Skylab launched in May 1973, it lost a heat shield, rendering it uninhabitable. Working with fishing poles and parasols, Kinzler fashioned a substitute shield that could be deployed without a risky spacewalk, earning him NASA's Distinguished Service Medal. His other contributions to space include the designs of the flagstaff, plaques and golf club heads used on the Apollo moon missions.

Kinzler never graduated from college, but he left his mark on Earth and beyond. He was 94.

Patrick Joseph McGovern: A man of the people

August 1937 – March 2014

In 1964, five years after graduating from MIT, Patrick McGovern co-founded market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC). IDC’s research revealed a lack of knowledge of industry news and events among IT professionals. So, in 1967, a decade before personal computers began hitting the market, McGovern debuted Computerworld, the first of hundreds of magazines to be published by International Data Group (IDG).

Despite having built an empire, McGovern never elevated himself above his co-workers. Every holiday season, McGovern would travel to divisions of every IDG publication and hand-deliver each employee’s holiday bonus.

He was as generous with his wealth as he was with his time: McGovern plied his corporate success into philanthropy. At his alma mater, he helped fund the establishment of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. “If we can make a significant impact on curing or preventing mental illnesses and brain diseases, the quality of life for people throughout the world would be enormously improved,” he said. McGovern was 76.

Georgy Adelson-Velsky: Shall we play a game?

January 1922 – April 2014

When the robots take over the Earth, we'll have Georgy Adelson-Velsky to thank for setting them on the path. A Russian computer scientist and mathematician, Adelson-Velsky was part of the team that developed the first chess program to defeat Kotok-McCarthy, another early chess programs.

Adelson-Velsky's program was further developed into Kaissa, which, in 1974, won the first-ever chess tournament exclusively for computer programs to compete against each other. Kaissa continued to be developed as late as 1990, when it placed fourth in the second annual Computer Olympiad, an event that continues to this day.

In 1992, Adelson-Velsky emigrated from Russia to Israel where he lived for the rest of his life. He died at age 92.

Bernard J. Lechner: High-definition innovator

January 1932 – April 2014

For the extinction of bulky, blurry CRT televisions, we have Bernard J. Lechner to thank.

A veteran of the Army Signal Corps, Bernard Lechner worked for 30 years at RCA, retiring as Staff Vice President of Advanced Video Systems. During his tenure, he helped develop flat-screen and high-definition standards, including the optimal space between an HDTV and its audience, now known as the Lechner distance. He also contributed to the development of camera and broadcast technologies, such as two-way cable services.

In 2000, Lechner was the inaugural recipient of the Advanced Television Systems Committee's Outstanding Contributor Award, later renamed the Bernard J. Lechner Award. He died at 82.

George H. Heilmeier: A new way of seeing

May 1936 – April 2014

In the 1960s, George H. Heilmeier and his team at RCA developed the technology to display images using liquid crystals. The resulting technology, LCD, has since been used in TVs, watches, calculators, computer monitors, smartphones and more. Heilmeier's 1968 work with LCDs was declared by the IEEE a significant historical achievement in electrical engineering and computing.

Heilmeier left RCA to serve as director of DARPA from 1975 to 1977, after which he worked at Texas Instruments as vice president then chief technology officer. He received the National Medal of Science in 1991 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2009. He died at 77.

Gerald Guralnik: 'God particle' man

September 1936 – April 2014

In a parallel universe, the Higgs boson might have been called the Guralnik boson.

First theorized in 1964 and potentially discovered in 2012, the particle was sometimes referred to as the Englert–Brout–Higgs–Guralnik–Hagen–Kibble mechanism, after the authors of the original theory. Gerald Guralnik was one of those six physicists who proposed why some particles have mass and some don’t.

The discovery of the Higgs boson could have significant bearing on such theories as supersymmetry and the end of the universe. Without Guralnik, we might never hope to know the answers to these questions. He was 77.

Bruce Woodgate: Eye in the sky

1939 – April 2014

A 40-year employee of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Bruce Woodgate was the principal investigator for the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which was installed on the Hubble Telescope seven years after its 1990 launch. Expected to work for five years, the STIS instead operated from 1997 to 2004 and 2009 to present, enabling close looks at Saturn and beyond.

"He was ... what I always thought a scientist should be: Curious, inquisitive, willing to try to figure out if something made sense ... and fascinated by the amazing and varied science his camera made possible," said astronomer Phil Plait.

If we have seen farther, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants — and used their telescopes. Woodgate was 74.

Clarence Ellis: Brilliant precedent

May 1943 – May 2014

Those who come first have a responsibility to those who will follow. Dr. Clarence Ellis cleared such a path.

As a teenage security guard in Chicago, Ellis read the manuals for the computers he wasn't allowed to use. His theoretical knowledge proved practical in a variety of corporate emergencies, beginning his career in computer science.

After earning a degree in math and physics from Beloit College, he dropped out of MIT graduate school to pursue civil rights activism, which found him in the audience of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Ellis eventually became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science in 1969. He later returned to MIT to work on the ARPANET, after which he moved to Xerox PARC and Stanford University and then MCC, advancing the development of graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, groupware, collaboration software and workflow systems.

He eventually settled down as a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he developed a Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training (SMART) program for internships in computer science, ensuring others would have access to the field. He was 71.

Roger Easton: Geolocator

April 1921 – May 2014

Do you know where you are and how to get where you're going? Then it's because Roger Easton showed the way.

In his 37-year career at the United States Naval Research Laboratory, Easton developed many systems and patents for use with satellites. As Sputnik and Vanguard vied for space, Easton designed the Minitrack tracking system to monitor these new artificial satellites. Refinements of this system were later adopted during the development of the global positioning system, or GPS. Easton, along with Bradford Parkinson and Ivan A. Getting, are credited with its invention.

Easton later retired to New Hampshire, where in 1986 he ran for governor. Among Easton's awards are the Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1960 and the National Medal of Technology in 2006. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. Easton was 93.

Stephanie Kwolek: Stronger than a speeding bullet

July 1923 – June 2014

Stephanie Kwolek joined DuPont in 1946, abandoning her intention to pursue medicine. In 1965, while developing a stronger, lighter material for use in tires, she stumbled across the polymer that in 1971 Dupont would commercialize as Kevlar. The material, five times stronger than steel, has saved countless lives in its application in bulletproof vests and is used in everything from cables to aerospace components.

Kwolek is the only woman to have received DuPont's Lavoisier Medal or to have been inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame.

"When I reflect back upon my career, I am inspired by the fact that I was able to do something that was of benefit to mankind," Kwolek said. She was 90.

Heinz Zemanek: An engineer to the core

January 1920 – July 2014

After World War II, Heinz Zemanek joined the faculty of University of Vienna. Seeing the strides international schools such as MIT were achieving in computing technology, Zemanek recruited some students and set out to compete. "I simply took the liberty to build a computer, and no one stopped me," he recalled.

The resulting computer, Mailüfterl — German for "May Breeze" — was mainland Europe's first transistor-based computer. It ran its first calculation on May 27, 1958, taking 66 minutes to determine a prime number greater than 5 billion.

Zemanek later joined IBM, where he was pivotal in the development of programming language PL/I, which continues to be used today. He also served as president of the International Federation for Information Processing (1971–1974). But no matter his role, he never lost his passion: "I'm am engineer to the core, and that means, 'truth is what works.'" He was 94.

Seth J. Teller: Creating more helpful robots

May 1964 – July 2014

Seth Teller liked to help people, but he didn’t do it just by carrying a neighbor’s groceries or leading an elderly person across the street. He did it with robots.

Teller joined the faculty of MIT in 1994 and was a pioneer in the field of assistive robotics, spending his career developing robots that worked to help people. Among his research projects are a robotic, voice-controlled wheelchair, a wearable device for visually-impaired people that provides them with information about their surroundings, a self-driving car and an unmanned forklift.

Teller also took the lead of MIT’s team for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition which tests robots’ ability to respond to disaster situations.

Teller was known as a gifted adviser and teacher who inspired some of his students to continue in the field of assistive technologies. He was 50.

Andrew Kay: A rugged visionary

January 1919 – August 2014

A graduate of MIT, Andrew Kay (born Andrew Kopischiansky) worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) before inventing the first digital voltmeter and founding a company to develop it. From this company was born Kaypro Corp., manufacturers of the Kaypro II computer (named after the Apple II).

This 29-pound portable machine went head-to-head with Osborne's line of competing products — a battle that Kaypro won in 1983, when Osborne went bankrupt. Andrew Kay was inducted into the Computer Museum of America Hall of Fame in 1998, alongside Bill Gates.

As MS-DOS machines proliferated, the Kaypro II began to flounder. Although Kaypro Corp. filed for bankruptcy in 1990, Kay's voltmeter company, Non-Linear Systems, continues to this day. Kay was 95.

John Fellows Akers: Personal success story

December 1934 – August 2014

With gumption and perseverance, even a sales trainee can rise to the top. That's how John Akers started, after graduating from Yale and serving as a U.S. Navy carrier pilot. After serving as an IBM sales rep assigned to Vermont, he began making his way up the corporate ladder, eventually serving terms as IBM president, CEO and chairman.

Unfortunately, Akers' personal success wasn’t mirrored by IBM's. During his tenure in leadership roles, the company closed plants, slashed staff and lost billions. He was ousted from IBM in 1993. In 2009, CNBC named Akers one of America's worst CEOs of all time.

Despite that legacy, his colleagues remember him as a considerate, collaborative businessman who gave others the benefit of the doubt. He was 79.

Hal Finney: Pretty good cryptographer

May 1956 – August 2014

We may never know who Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin, is — but the first person to use his invention was Hal Finney.

After an early career making Atari video games, Finney became interested in cryptography. He worked with Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, from the project's founding in 1991, becoming one of its first employees in 1996. There he developed PGP 2.0, a program for encrypting and authenticating files and communications.

In 2009, Finney was an early supporter of virtual currency Bitcoin, engaging in the first transaction with its anonymous inventor — leading some to believe Finney himself had invented Bitcoin.

Even after a 2009 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Finney continued his work on cryptography. He died at 58. A Bitcoin fund for ALS research has been established in Finney's name.

Douglas E. Smith: Digging Doug

1960 – September 2014

As one of the first personal computers, the Apple II succeeded in business with programs like VisiCalc and in schools with Oregon Trail. But it was games like Lode Runner that cemented its place at home.

Doug Smith created the game while a college student. Smith dropped out of his classes to finish the game's 150 levels, crowdsourcing some of their designs to neighborhood kids. First called Miner, it was rechristened Lode Runner when it was published by Broderbund.

The result was a success: Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov cited Lode Runner as one of his favorite games of the era. Since its 1983 debut, there have been over three dozen versions and sequels to Lode Runner, including a recent iOS port of the original Apple II version.

Smith later worked on such seminal Nintendo games as Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. He was 54 when he died.

Bob Bishop: Mr. Logic

September 1943 – September 2014

When Apple debuted the Apple-1 in 1976, Bob Bishop wanted one — so he went to Steve Jobs' home and bought one. That was not Bishop's introduction to computers: He'd already worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he contributed to the Apollo 17 program.

He turned his explorations from outer space to cyberspace, developing the first graphics-based Apple II games, most notably demonstrating the machine's abilities with his APPLE-VISION demo. This prowess earned him a position as co-founder of Apple's R&D division, where he partnered with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Bishop later developed the programming language SIMPLE and hosted a radio show as personality Mr. Logic. He was 71.

Godehard Guenther: Space & sound

April 1939 – October 2014

After earning his Ph.D. in astrophysics in his native Germany, Godehard Guenther emigrated to the U.S. in 1969. There, he worked at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, developing experiments for Skylab, which launched in 1973. He left NASA to pursue research and development in acoustics, founding two companies: Analog + Digital Systems (a/d/s/) and Soundmatters.

Guenther furthered the use of rare-earth metals in loudspeakers. Soundmatters' work has been used by such companies as Jawbone, Roku and Logitech, and its FoxL speaker was named one of Time magazine’s top 10 gadgets of 2008, alongside the iPhone.

Guenther's personal interests were as diverse as his professional ones: He was a gifted pianist, amateur architect and world traveler. He was 75.

Ralph Baer: The father of video games

March 1922 – December 2014

Had Ralph Baer's family not fled Germany months before Kristallnacht, someone else may have had to invent video games.

In 1966, while working at defense contractor Sanders Associate, Baer invented the "Brown Box," which connected to a television to play ping-pong. The technology evolved into the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game system. In 1978, Baer also co-developed Simon, the Milton Bradley game of matching color patterns.

Baer retired in 1987 but continued to be active in the industry, sharing his story in the book Videogames: In the Beginning. He was accessible to fans and journalists alike, sharing his notes and prototypes with budding historians.

Baer was "a complete gentleman whose personality was anathema to those in the boisterous, bloviating entertainment industry of games that no longer has room for gentlemen," wrote gaming historian Harold Goldberg. Baer was 92.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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