13 tech luminaries we lost in 2020

Developers, translators, and human computers, these 13 men and women made the world a better place through IT.

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Luminaries we lost this year
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As this difficult year draws to a close, we at Computerworld would like to take a moment to honor the accomplishments and celebrate the lives of several extraordinary individuals who have passed away in the last 12 months.

Some invented powerful computers that others used to send us to the moon; some faced social barriers, while others navigated political obstacles; some were rich and powerful, while others were humble teachers. From Germany and Uruguay to South Korea and the United States, the lives of these 13 men and women spanned a globe they left forever transformed.

Randy Suess: Board man

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Randy Suess (Jan. 27, 1945 – Dec. 10, 2019) Jason Scott (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Randy Suess, having worked at IBM and Zenith, was bored. “I was looking for something more to do — and then this damn thing called a [personal] computer came along,” he said in the 2005 film BBS: The Documentary.

In 1975, he joined the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyists’ Exchange, or CACHE, where he met Ward Christensen. The two lived far enough apart that they had to invent ways to collaborate remotely: Christensen wrote the MODEM.ASM program and XMODEM file transfer protocol so they could send each other files.

When a blizzard struck Chicago in 1978, CACHE meetings were canceled, prompting Suess and Christensen to develop an online alternative that all members could participate in. With Suess’s hardware and Christensen’s software, they created the first dial-up bulletin board, naming it the Computerized Bulletin Board System.

The impact of CBBS was felt far beyond Chicagoland: by 1994, there were 60,000 BBSes across the United States. Their online communities, message boards, file libraries, and multiplayer games were a precursor to everything from Reddit to YouTube and World of Warcraft.

Suess died at 74. When CBBS went offline in the 1980s, it had received over a half-million calls. A version of CBBS is still available via telnet.

Editor’s note: Suess died in December 2019, too late to be included in last year’s “Tech luminaries we lost” story.

Chuck Peddle: Mass appeal

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Chuck Peddle (Nov. 25, 1937 – Dec. 15, 2019) Jason Scott (CC BY 2.0)

Without an affordable CPU, Steve Wozniak might never have invented the Apple computers that launched a technological revolution. Woz’s machine and many of its peers were powered by the work of Chuck Peddle.

Peddle, an electrical engineer and former Marine, joined Motorola in 1973. There, he helped develop the 6800, a powerful but expensive microprocessor. When he saw potential customers balk at its $175 price tag (more than $1,000 in 2020 dollars), he set out to develop a low-cost alternative.

After his pitch was rejected by Motorola, Peddle recruited a half-dozen of his colleagues — almost half of the 6800 team — to join him at MOS Technology, where Peddle led the efforts to develop a new chip.

In 1975, MOS released the 6502, an 8-bit microprocessor that sold for just $25, a seventh of the 6800’s cost. Its affordability and versatility led to it powering dozens of early home electronics, among them the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600, and the Nintendo Entertainment System. An enhanced version of the chip, the 65C02, is still available from Western Design Center.

When Commodore purchased MOS in 1976, Peddle was put in charge of developing a personal computer built around the 6502. The result was 1977’s Commodore PET. In 1980, Peddle left MOS to co-found Sirius Systems Technology, where he invented the Victor 9000 computer.

Peddle died at 82.

Editor’s note: Peddle died in December 2019, too late to be included in last year’s “Tech luminaries we lost” story.

Peter Kirstein: No bridge too far

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Peter Kirstein (June 20, 1933 – Jan. 8, 2020) The Marconi Society

Born Peter Thomas Kirschstein, four-year-old Peter fled with his family from Germany to London in 1937. After studying at University of Cambridge, Kirstein moved abroad to earn his master’s degree and PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He then returned to Europe, working at CERN in Geneva and General Electric’s corporate research group in Zurich before joining the faculty at University College London (UCL).

Fluent in three languages — English, German, and French, with a smattering of Russian — Kirstein developed working relationships with numerous computer scientists including Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, co-inventors of the TCP/IP networking protocols that underlie the internet.  When the United States sought to connect ARPANET to other countries’ networks, Kirstein answered the call, in 1973 setting up a node at UCL, one of the first two trans-Atlantic connections for the growing communications network.

In subsequent years, Kirstein oversaw the growth of ARPANET in the UK, championing TCP/IP over competing protocols and contributing to its spread throughout Europe — all of which earned him the title of “father of the European internet.” He even helped Queen Elizabeth II send her first email in 1976.

“Peter was the bedrock of the ARPA relationship with European colleagues interested in the internet and served in many ways for decades to facilitate its spread and use around the world,” Vint Cerf, Chairman of the Marconi Society, told Computerworld. “We miss his steadfast dedication and constructive optimism.”

Kirstein was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012 and was honored as a Marconi Fellow in 2015. He died of a brain tumor at 86.

Larry Tesler: Mac grandaddy

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Larry Tesler (Apr. 24, 1945 – Feb. 16, 2020) Yahoo! (CC BY 2.0)

After a stint at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), Larry Tesler joined Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1973. There, he worked on teams developing the first dynamic object-oriented programming language, Smalltalk, and the first modern GUI word processor, Gypsy, for use with the groundbreaking Xerox Alto personal computer. These projects led Tesler to develop or co-develop what have become universal commands and concepts: copy and paste, search and replace, WYSIWYG, and “user-friendly” software.

Tesler was working at PARC during Steve Jobs’ infamous visits, which inspired Jobs to add a mouse-driven GUI to the Mac. Tesler followed Jobs back to Apple, working there for 17 years on such products as the Lisa and Newton. His final role at Apple was Chief Scientist of the Advanced Technology Group before he moved on to work at Amazon and Yahoo!

Tesler was quick to accept credit when due and to deny it when he was not. “I have been mistakenly identified as ‘the father of the graphical user interface for the Macintosh,’” wrote Tesler on his website. “I was not. However, a paternity test might expose me as one of its many grandparents.”

Tesler died at 74.

Bert Sutherland: Making connections

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Bert Sutherland (May 10, 1936 – Feb. 18, 2020) Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

After serving in the Navy, Bert Sutherland, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Scotland and New Zealand, earned his PhD from MIT. In 1970, he joined Bolt Beranek & Newman, the company that won the military contract to build the ARPANET, where he managed the computer science division.

In 1975, Sutherland moved to Xerox PARC. There, he introduced two novel concepts: assembling a multidisciplinary team of specialists from fields including anthropology and psychology, and encouraging researchers to observe how their technology was used in real-world corporate settings.

While at PARC, Sutherland fostered a relationship between Caltech researchers (including his younger brother Ivan) and PARC scientist Lynn Conway; these collaborators proceeded to develop a textbook and curriculum that proliferated the adoption of very large-scale integrated circuits (VLSI).

From 1992 to 1998, Sutherland served as director of Sun Microsystems’ R&D division, Sun Labs, co-founded by Ivan. The siblings made a great team. Said Ivan of his older brother: “He taught me to drive; he taught me trigonometry; he taught me electronics to become a ham radio operator. He taught me most of the important things that I know.”

Sutherland retired in 2000. He was 83 when he died.

Katherine Johnson: Hidden figure

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Katherine Johnson (Aug. 26, 1918 – Feb. 24, 2020) NASA

In an era and industry dominated by white men, Katherine Johnson, an African-American woman, was the brains of the operation that sent humanity into space.

Born as Creola Katherine Coleman, Johnson graduated from college in 1937 at the age of 18 with degrees in mathematics and French. In 1953, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, as a human computer, performing complex calculations for space flights, including several Mercury and Apollo missions. It was Johnson who calculated the trajectory for the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. When John Glenn was sent on his orbital flight a year later, he requested Johnson by name to confirm the IBM 7090 computer’s equations.

Johnson broke barriers not only for astronauts, but for generations of women and people of color in STEM fields. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015 and was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Johnson retired in 1986. She was 101 when she passed.

Jaime Carbonell: Found in translation

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Jaime Carbonell (July 29, 1953 – Feb. 28, 2020) Carnegie Mellon University

When Jaime Carbonell of Uruguay was studying at MIT, he translated computer manuals from English to his native Spanish. Thus was born a lifelong mission to develop better tools for machine-based language translation.

A faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh since 1979, Carbonell founded CMU’s Center for Machine Translation in 1985 and both the Language Technology Institute and the school’s PhD program in language technologies in 1996. His research teams achieved many firsts, including the first speech-to-speech machine translation in 1992.

Carbonell’s own inventions included maximal marginal relevance (MMR), a technique for summarizing text. His research became the basis of such companies as Lycos, establishing Pittsburgh’s leadership in the language technologies industry.

Carbonell saw his work as not just theoretical or industrial, but meaningful to humanity. As he said to the Boston Globe 1996, “We are living in a globalized society, and I think automation has to be the way to overcome language differences.”

Carbonell was 66 when he passed.

Deborah Washington Brown: Finding her voice

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Deborah Brown (June 3, 1952 – June 5, 2020) Laurel Brown

Music has many intriguing mathematical properties — so when Deborah Washington Brown was dissuaded from pursuing a career as a pianist, she found it a logical shift to study math.

Brown was the first Black woman to earn a PhD in computer science from Harvard’s applied mathematics program in 1981. Her ensuing career focused on speech recognition, with roles as a speech technology specialist and scientist at such companies as AT&T Bell Laboratories and Verizon. Her research and development produced eleven patents, including one for routing calls based on spoken prompts and another for identifying and narrowing options based on verbal input.

Brown never lost sight of her first love, often performing as a classical pianist. She also served as a role model for other marginalized voices. “I didn’t even realize until I was in college that there was any type of gender or race gap in STEM… I never had to second guess myself or my abilities, because of the example she set for me,” said her daughter, Laurel, also a Harvard graduate.

Brown died of cancer at 68.

William English: Of mice and men

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  William English (Jan. 27, 1929 – July 26, 2020) Marcin Wichary (CC BY 2.0)

Douglas Engelbart is credited with inventing the computer mouse, but it was Bill English’s design and implementation that made the mouse a reality.

After serving in the United States Navy, English joined the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the early 1960s. There, he partnered with Engelbart on an experimental computer dubbed the oNLine System (NLS).

As part of that collaboration, Engelbart shared his sketches for a mechanical device that could move a digital pointer on a screen with English. English proceeded to develop a prototype, housing it in a pinewood case. He was the author of the first article to refer to a computer mouse, published in July 1965, three years before Engelbart demonstrated it in the “Mother of All Demos,” which English directed.

After leaving SRI in 1971, English joined Xerox PARC, where he adapted his NLS concepts into the Alto computer, which inspired Steve Jobs and the Apple Macintosh.

English died of respiratory failure at 91.

Frances Allen: An optimized career

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Frances Allen (Aug. 4, 1932 – Aug. 4, 2020) Rama (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Former high-school teacher Frances Allen was pursuing a master’s degree in mathematics when she had her first encounter with computers, learning how to program an IBM 650. Upon earning her master’s in 1957, she switched careers and joined IBM Research, where she stayed for 45 years. Her educational background was immediately put to good use, teaching IBM programmers how to use the two-month-old FORTRAN language.

Her next project was with the IBM 7030, also known as Stretch, IBM’s first transistorized supercomputer and the world’s fastest computer from 1961 to 1963. Allen’s team developed a compiler for Stretch that supported three different programming languages; it would be used by the National Security Agency, where Allen spent a year overseeing the computer’s installation and testing.

A pioneer in compiler optimization, Allen published several landmark papers on program optimization, control flow analysis, and parallelizing compilers that paved the way for modern, efficient programming. She was the first woman to be named an IBM Fellow in 1989, and the first woman to win the Turing Award in 2006.

Allen was also committed to helping future generations of female programmers, speaking at conferences around the world and urging women to consider STEM careers. In 2000, IBM established the Frances E. Allen Women in Technology Mentoring Award in her honor.

“She was a brilliant thinker and innovator and a kind-hearted individual who had an unabashed commitment to others,” said IBM in a tribute video. “IBM and the world are better for Fran Allen.”

Allen died on her birthday at the age of 88.

Russell Kirsch: Pixel perfect

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Russell Kirsch (June 20, 1929 – Aug. 11, 2020) Walden Kirsch

From computer monitors to HDTVs to virtual reality, many digital images are composed of pixels — and pixels were composed by Russell Kirsch.

In 1951, Kirsch joined the National Bureau of Standards (renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988), where he worked with the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer (SEAC).

In 1957, Kirsch digitized a black-and-white photograph of his newborn son using a rotating drum scanner his NBS team had developed. The resulting image — a mere 176 by 176 pixels — is widely considered the first digital photograph. In 2003, Life magazine dubbed it one of “the 100 photographs that changed the world.”

Kirsch’s early work in digital photography opened the door for advancements in everything from medical imaging technology to space exploration. But his true passion was artificial intelligence. He spent much of his 35-year stint at NBS exploring methods for computers to not just learn, but generate new knowledge.

“He was brilliant, curious, verbal, questioning, a great teacher, mathematician, scientist and father,” said his son, Walden, the subject of that historic photo.

Kirsch retired in 1985. He was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2003; he passed at age 91.

Lee Kun-hee: His own person

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Lee Kun-hee (Jan. 9, 1942 – Oct. 25, 2020) Samsung

When Lee Kun-hee’s father, Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, died in 1987, the younger Lee took over as chairman of Samsung Group (which includes Samsung Electronics) until 2008, and again from 2010 to 2020. In the ‘90s he led the company through a successful transformation from producing low-quality goods to high-end technology products, famously urging employees to “change everything but your wife and children.” By 2007, Samsung was producing a fifth of South Korea’s GDP, making Lee the richest person in the country.

But Lee’s career was peppered with controversy. In 1996, he was convicted of bribing the South Korean president. Similar legal troubles caused Lee’s two-year gap as Samsung chairman. In 2008, he was convicted of financial wrongdoing involving a corporate fund used to bribe government officials. He was pardoned in 2009 — a pardon that was later determined to have been in exchange for bribes.

After suffering a debilitating heart attack in 2014, Lee was hospitalized for the rest of his life, remaining Samsung chairman in name only. He passed at 78.

Norman Abramson: Hello from paradise

CW  >  In Memoriam 2020  >  Norman Abramson (Apr. 1, 1932 – Dec. 1, 2020) Norman Abramson

After earning degrees from Harvard University, UCLA, and Stanford University, Norman Abramson taught at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1968 he joined the faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, a context that informed much of his ensuing research.

To ensure computer transmissions from remote Hawaii to the United States were received in full, Abramson’s team divided the data into packets, much like fellow researchers were doing at ARPANET around the same time. The packets were then sent via radio. The network, which went online in 1971, was dubbed Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area Network. ALOHAnet was the first wireless packet data network, influencing the development of many communication technologies, from Ethernet to Wi-Fi.

Upon retiring from teaching in 1994, Abramson founded Aloha Networks, where he served as CTO. Abramson was the recipient of multiple awards, including the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 2007.

Abramson was 88 when he passed away from complications from skin cancer.

See also: Tech luminaries we lost in 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

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