Tech luminaries we lost in 2015

These 19 men and women helped shape the tech industry as we know it.

In Memoriam
Getty Images / IDG

The past year, like all years, saw the passing of many notable technologists whose innovations, visions, and hard work forever changed our world. Some made their marks quietly, with little fanfare. Others garnered headlines and worldwide attention.

Although each left his or her own unique legacy, they all shared a pioneering spirit that brought them to the forefront of their respective disciplines and industries. So as the calendar turns to 2016, we take a moment to remember some of the great technology minds we lost in 2015.

Charles H. Townes: Co-creator of laser technology

July 1915 – January 2015

Townes was a visionary physicist whose work led to the development of the laser, an achievement that touches modern everyday life in numerous ways.

While a faculty member at Columbia University, Townes developed the idea of applying the laws of physics to create intense, precise beams of coherent radiation, coining the term maser (for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) to describe it. He and two colleagues built the first maser in 1953. Light-emitting versions, called lasers, came later.

Townes and two colleagues shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the maser.

He was 99.

Beryl Platt: Trailblazer in engineering

April 1923 – February 2015

Baroness Platt of Writtle was one of the first female aeronautical engineers and a champion for gender equality in the workplace.

Platt studied aeronautical engineering at England's University of Cambridge, where she was one of five women in a class of 250 studying mechanical sciences. She entered the aviation industry as a technical assistant and later worked for British European Airways investigating air safety. She ended her career after marrying in 1949, but later entered politics where she promoted her interest in science and technology.

She chaired the U.K.'s Equal Opportunities Commission between 1983 and 1988 and served on the Engineering Council, the regulatory body for the U.K. engineering profession, where she stressed the need for more female engineers.

She was 91.

Friedrich L. Bauer: Informatics pioneer

June 1924 – March 2015

Bauer was one of the pioneers of computer science and is credited with coining the term software engineering.

A professor of mathematics and computer science at the Technical University of Munich, Bauer first focused on the construction of computing machinery. He was the first to propose the widely used stack method of expression evaluation. He then focused on concepts in automatic programming, which eventually led to his contribution to the imperative computer programming languages ALGOL 58 and ALGOL 60 — predecessors to all imperative programming languages.

He was 90.

Klaus Tschira: Co-founder of SAP

December 1940 – March 2015

A trained physicist and amateur astronomer, Tschira played a pioneering role in business software.

Tschira started his professional career at IBM in the mid-1960s, working as a systems analyst and in the emerging field of enterprise software. That led Tschira and several other colleagues to start their own company, called SAP (an acronym for Systems, Applications and Products in Data Processing), in 1972.

He and his colleagues built the German company into a multinational corporation that remains one of the dominant players in the enterprise software market. Tschira, who stepped down from the SAP board in 2007, was also active in various charitable activities.

He was 74.

Joseph Lechleider: Brought high-speed Internet home

February 1933 – April 2015

The world can credit Lechleider for the advent of high-speed Internet service.

Lechleider was an electrical engineer at Bellcore, the Bell telephone companies' research lab, in the 1980s when he devised a solution for transmitting large amounts of data quickly over the copper wires that carried telephone signals into homes.

Lechleider's idea called for sending data at much faster speeds in one direction — rather than allowing the copper lines to carry packets of information at equal speeds in both directions.

His idea led to the development of digital subscriber line (DSL) technology, which enabled telephone companies to offer high-speed Internet service to millions of homes.

He was 82.

Dave Goldberg: Silicon Valley giant

October 1967 – May 2015

A major player in Silicon Valley, Goldberg made his mark as serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist and business executive. He also gained widespread recognition for being the husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Goldberg worked at Bain & Co. for two years after his 1989 graduation from Harvard University. He later served as director of marketing strategy and new business development for Capitol Records before founding LAUNCH Media in 1994. He stayed with the company after it was acquired in 2001 by Yahoo, and remained at Yahoo until 2007. He worked briefly at Benchmark Capital before becoming chief executive at SurveyMonkey in 2009.

He was 47.

John F. Nash Jr.: Possessor of A Beautiful Mind

June 1928 – May 2015

Nash's life is the stuff of Hollywood stories.

A Nobel laureate and genius mathematician, Nash's work influenced a multitude of disciplines, including biology, economics, foreign affairs, politics and social sciences. But his world was also clouded by schizophrenia, and his descent into and recovery from mental illness were featured in a book and movie, both titled A Beautiful Mind.

Nash is also famous for the Nash equilibrium, his theory of noncooperative games. Published in 1950, the Nash equilibrium provided a powerful mathematical tool for analyzing a wide range of competitive situations. Nash was also recognized for his contributions to pure mathematics.

He was 86.

Michael Birck: Entrepreneur and executive

January 1938 – July 2015

Birck's story represents the archetypical American entrepreneurial tale.

An electrical engineer, he worked at AT&T's Bell Laboratories and Continental Telephone Laboratories before becoming director of engineering at Wescom Inc. in 1968.

He became his own boss in 1975, when he and five other men held a brainstorming session around a kitchen table. The group hatched the idea that would become Tellabs Inc. Birck, who served as the company's CEO and its chairman, helped build Tellabs into a global provider of networking technologies that supports the world's largest telecommunications companies.

He was 77.

Caspar Bowden: Privacy advocate

August 1961 – July 2015

Hailing from London, Bowden studied math and worked on artificial intelligence in college. He became an adviser to Scientists for Labour, an organization affiliated with the U.K.'s Labour Party. He worked to convince party officials that personal data protection was a major issue, although he left the party in a disagreement over its stance on government regulations and surveillance.

Bowden co-founded the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a British think tank that examined Internet policy. He left the foundation to join Microsoft as its chief privacy adviser for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Even after he left that role, he continued to be a vocal advocate for privacy.

He was 53.

Satoru Iwata: Chief gamer

December 1959 – July 2015

If there's one job that most modern kids dream of, it's the one that Iwata held. Iwata started his career as a video game developer at HAL Laboratory, where he collaborated closely with developers at Nintendo. He later joined Nintendo as head of corporate planning and became that company's president and CEO in 2002. He oversaw the introduction of gaming systems such as the Nintendo DS and the Wii.

It's a fitting role for a man who, in 2006, said at an industry conference: "Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone."

A native of Sapporo, Japan, Iwata was also credited for helping bring video games to a mainstream, family audience.

He was 55.

Claudia Alexander: NASA scientist

May 1959 – July 2015

Alexander worked in humanity's final frontier: space.

An employee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for nearly three decades, she played significant roles in the space agency's long-lived Galileo mission, and also worked on the international comet-chasing Rosetta project. She was well known for her research on solar wind, Jupiter and its moons, and the evolution and inner workings of comets. She wanted to engage the public in space science and worked to bring amateur astronomers into the Rosetta project through social media.

In 2014, Alexander told The Los Angeles Times: "For me, this is among the purposes of my life — to take us from states of ignorance to states of understanding with bold exploration that you can't do every day."

She was 56.

John H. Gibbons: ‘Illuminating the issues’

January 1929 – July 2015

Gibbons was a physicist who brought science to Washington power brokers.

Gibbons was the first director of the Federal Office of Energy Conservation and later became director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. He was director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president for science and technology during President Clinton's administration. He was a member of the National Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council.

"A compelling argument could be made that my primary role is to illuminate the issues that matter and to build a network to support them," Gibbons once told The New York Times.

He was 86.

Robert Dewar: Computer language specialist

June 1945 – June 2015

Dewar, co-founder and president of the software company AdaCore, was instrumental in the design and implementation of the Ada programming language.

He was an outspoken advocate of freely licensed open-source software and a professor in New York University's computer science department, where he specialized in programming language design and implementation.

Dewar was part of the SETL project and was one of the architects of the Ada/Ed compiler at NYU. An expert in all aspects of language technology, he co-developed compilers for SPITBOL (SNOBOL), Realia COBOL for the PC, and Alsys Ada. He also designed and implemented several real-time operating systems for Honeywell Inc.

He was 70.

James L. Flanagan: An engineer of modern sounds

August 1925 – August 2015

Nearly everyone today has heard Flanagan's work.

An electrical engineer, Flanagan made his mark in the field of acoustics. He helped develop the foundational technologies that enable speech recognition, teleconferencing, MP3 music files and other modern audio applications. His work is evident in much of today's automated audio world — from the digital assistants speaking from modern smartphones to the automated audio systems that answer and route business calls. A World War II Army Air Forces veteran, he worked at Bell Labs for 33 years. He later became a professor and vice president for research at Rutgers University.

He was 89.

Joseph F. Traub: A pioneer in computer science

June 1932 – August 2015

Traub was an IT pioneer who worked in computer science well before it was recognized as a profession.

Known for his work on optimal algorithms and computational complexity applied to continuous scientific problems, Traub helped create the field of information-based complexity. His work showed how algorithms could be used in scientific computing in the fields of physics and mathematics, and in the markets on Wall Street.

In 1971 he became chairman of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, and in 1979 he joined Columbia University, where he founded that school's computer science department.

He was 83.

Chuck Forsberg: Developer of data transmission protocols

May 1944 – September 2015

Forsberg made computer programming history in the 1980s, writing file transfer protocols that placed him in an elite group of software pioneers.

The first of the two data transmission protocols, used for uploading and downloading files in the 1980s and 1990s, was called YMODEM. The second protocol, which was much more widely adopted, was ZMODEM. It used a sliding window protocol, sending blocks in rapid succession in a way that helped avoid delays due to latency. His work earned him a Dvorak Award for Excellence in Telecommunications in 1992.

He also developed software for sending and receiving files using ZMODEM.

He was 71.

George Mueller: ‘Father of the space shuttle’

July 1918 – October 2015

For Mueller, shoot for the moon was more than an expression. It was a mission.

Mueller was a career space engineer who headed NASA's Office of Manned Space Flight from 1963 to 1969. He introduced an approach to testing that made the lunar landings possible. He was also instrumental in designing Skylab, the country's first space station. Mueller advocated for a reusable mode of space transportation — an idea that eventually led to the development of the space shuttle.

After leaving NASA, Mueller worked at General Dynamics and then at Kistler Aerospace. His work earned him the National Medal of Science, as well as the moniker "father of the space shuttle."

He was 97.

Michael D. Hammond: Co-founder of Gateway Computers

November 1961 – October 2015

Gateway Computers was once one of the most recognizable brands in the IT industry, thanks in part to the black-and-white cowhide pattern on its shipping boxes.

Hammond started Gateway in Iowa with Ted Waitt in 1985, when they were both in their early 20s. They initially worked out of the Waitt family farm.

Initially focused on selling computer parts, Gateway later developed a line of PCs that were sold directly to consumers. It grew to be one of the earliest successful direct-sales PC companies. Hammond was known as Gateway's technical expert, and he kept a lower profile than his partner.

He was 53.

Gene Amdahl: Architect of mainframe computers

November 1922 – November 2015

Countless companies owe a debt of gratitude to the mainframe computer, the technical workhorse that has kept businesses humming for decades.

They should also thank Amdahl — the man behind those mainframes. Despite growing up without electricity, Amdahl went on to become the chief architect of the IBM 704 scientific computer and the IBM System/360 family of computers — considered one of the greatest success stories in computing.

He left IBM in 1970 to start his own company, Amdahl Corp., where he made mainframe computers that ran IBM software. His company captured nearly 25% of the market at its peak before being acquired by Fujitsu.

He was 92.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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