Some computer scientists have small, humble projects they don’t expect to succeed; others set out to change the world. Whether what they developed was a diversion, a means to an end, or a goal unto itself, these innovators shaped and reshaped our world with their brilliance and persistence.
You may know their brands and products, from Nintendo and Tandy to assembly language and the GIF; today, we share the names and stories of the geniuses responsible. As the year comes to a close, Computerworld honors 12 inventors and entrepreneurs whom we lost in the past 12 months.
Masayuki Uemura: Bringing the games home
June 20, 1943 – December 6, 2021
Masayuki Uemura was working at Sharp Corporation when he was recruited by one of his clients, Nintendo, to make electronic light gun games. Although those games saw some success, it was when Uemura brought the fun home that he made Nintendo a household name.
As head of Nintendo’s R&D2 division, which focused on hardware, Uemura was tasked with creating a way to play arcade games at home. The system, which he dubbed the Family Computer but became better known as the Famicom, had significant budgetary constraints that prevented Uemura from implementing all his ideas, including wireless controllers with more than two buttons. Nevertheless, the console was successful after its 1983 release in Japan, with sales reaching 2.5 million units by the end of 1984.
When a redesigned version of the Famicom was brought to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, though, the odds were against it. Atari had crashed the American video game market in 1983, leaving retailers burnt and video games perceived as a fad whose time had passed — but, backed by the exciting gameplay of titles like Super Mario Bros., Uemura’s invention won the country over, almost single-handedly reviving an entire industry.
Uemura later designed the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, then served as producer on numerous Nintendo games, including Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble. After a 33-year career with Nintendo, Uemura left to accept a professorship at Ritsumeikan University. The impact of his time on Nintendo was not lost on him, as he told Nintendo Life: “I am proud of the fact that I was assigned to be in charge of the birth and development of a games console.”
Uemura died at the age of 78.
Editor’s note: Uemura died in December 2021, too late to be included in last year’s “Tech luminaries we lost” story.
Lorinda Cherry: A calculating programmer
November 18, 1944 – February 1, 2022
Cherry started at Bell Labs in 1966 as a technical assistant — a typical role for women at that time. After collaborating with Ken Knowlton to develop BEFLIX, a language for computer animation, Cherry joined the lab where Unix development began in 1969. There, she produced many programs for the command-line environment.
Cherry developed the precision calculators dc and bc, which are still in use today. (Open the macOS Terminal and type “man dc” or “man bc” to learn how to use them!) She collaborated with Brian Kernighan on eqn, a typesetting program for mathematical equations that later influenced the design of TeX, a typesetting system used in a variety of academic fields. And she developed algorithms for identifying misspelled words via statistical analysis, which became the foundation for typo, one of the first spell checkers. Cherry contributed many other writing utilities to the software suite Writer’s Workbench (wwb), which Cherry demoed on NBC’s The Today Show in 1981.
“Lorinda was not cut from the same mold as most of her colleagues,” wrote Bell Labs alumnus Doug McIlroy. “Lorinda was always determined, but never pushy. The determination shows in her success in text analysis, which involves much sheer grit — there are no theoretical shortcuts in this subject.”
Cherry was honored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology in 2018. She was 77 when she passed away in early February 2022.
Mary Coombs: The pride of Lyons
February 4, 1929 – February 28, 2022
Although the ice cream sales department of British restaurant and hospitality firm J. Lyons and Co. wasn’t where Mary Coombs hoped to start her career in 1952, it proved to be the right place and right time for someone of her mathematical acumen. Thanks to its forward-looking administrators, Lyons had a computer that was developed specifically for them: the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO. It was only the third computer in the country and the first to be used for commercial business applications.
Coombs applied and was accepted to work on LEO, making her history’s first female commercial programmer. Before long, LEO was calculating payroll for Lyons’ 10,000 employees. Coombs later worked as a programmer and supervisor for the LEO II and LEO III machines.
Said Georgina Ferry, author of A Computer Called Leo, “The people who worked on the LEO computer pulled off something absolutely remarkable: to actually think, to see how a computer could fit into a business and do all the things that we now just completely take for granted.”
“We were pioneers in this industry,” said Coombs. “I doubt if any of us anticipated just how far computers would go … And we might have perhaps got further if it wasn’t a catering firm that we were involved with.”
Coombs died at 93.
Sargur Srihari: Sorting patterns
May 7, 1949 – March 8, 2022
Sargur “Hari” Srihari joined the faculty of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1978. In 1991, after decades of teaching on such topics as machine learning, Srihari was appointed the founding director of the Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition. A collaboration between the University at Buffalo and the United States Postal Service, CEDAR was charged with developing software for the automation of mail sorting.
The heuristics and algorithms Srihari developed at CEDAR were successfully implemented in 1997. Today, his software is responsible for 95% of USPS mail being automatically sorted, with variations used in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Srihari continued analyzing handwriting in other fields as well: his 2002 research into the individuality of handwriting influenced court trials and the criminal justice community.
Srihari’s work in automation earned him a 2011 Outstanding Achievements Award from the International Association for Pattern Recognition. And in 1997, he was granted the title of SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo. “Hari cherished his role as a researcher, professor and scientist, and he will be deeply missed by his department, our school and our university,” said Kemper Lewis, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Srihari died at 72 from complications of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
Steve Wilhite: Choosy programmers choose GIF
March 3, 1948 – March 14, 2022
Alexander “Sandy” Trevor, inventor of CompuServe’s chat rooms, wanted a file format that suited the online service’s needs for small, crisp graphics. He tapped in-house developer Steve Wilhite to come up with something.
In 1987, Wilhite debuted the result: the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF. An updated version with support for animation was introduced in 1989, which Netscape Navigator 2.0 added support for in 1995.
The web has never been the same: decades later, animated GIFs pervade not only Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media, but also online documentation, product illustrations, and UI demonstrations.
Wilhite later contributed to CompuServe’s “B” file transfer protocol, as well as the Host Micro Interface by which front-end clients were developed for end users to connect to CompuServe. But it was the GIF for which he is best remembered, along with its many memes and pronunciation debates.
In 2013, Wilhite received a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award — an opportunity he used to reaffirm that it’s pronounced “JIF”.
Wilhite died of COVID at the age of 74.
John V. Roach: The Tandy man
November 22, 1938 – March 20, 2022
In 1967, two years after earning his MBA from Texas Christian University, John V. Roach joined Tandy Corporation as a data processing manager in the Tandy Computer Services division.
Within a decade, Roach was vice president of manufacturing — just in time to oversee Tandy’s foray into the personal computer market. When Tandy employee Don French pitched the company on developing a microcomputer, the idea intrigued Roach, who foresaw the potential for home computers. A computer would cost more than the typical product sold at Tandy’s Radio Shack stores, but needing to buffer the decline in sales of CB radios, Roach greenlit the computer project.
In 1977, Tandy released the TRS-80, a Z80-equipped computer, for only $600 — less than half the $1,298 price of a competing Apple II. Expecting to sell only 3,000 computers a year, Tandy instead sold 55,000 units in the first year alone.
The TRS-80 was only the midway point of Roach’s long career at Tandy. He was executive vice president in 1978, COO in 1980, and chairman and CEO from 1983 until he retired in 1999. He also served on President Reagan’s short-lived Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives and was the chairman of the board at his alma mater, TCU. Roach’s many accomplishments earned him recognition from Financial World as Chief Executive of the Decade in Specialty Retailing in 1982.
Roach relished the many opportunities he encountered and created throughout his career. “There are just an infinite number of challenges in all directions that make it exciting to get up in the morning,” he said.
Roach passed at 83.
Tadao Takahashi: Brazilian Prometheus
December 16, 1950 – April 6, 2022
Bringing the internet to the masses can require a conscious effort. In Brazil, that effort was coordinated by Tadao Takahashi.
In 1989, Takahashi founded the National Research Network, an organization that worked with Brazil’s academic institutions to form the country’s internet backbone. The conditions in Brazil at the time were not ideal for such an initiative, said Takahashi: “Inflation rates pretty high, a totally discredited political party in power, a significant part of the population struggling… [but] even in that situation, we were able to get started.” His approach to internet governance predated a similar model later adopted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Rather than leave proliferation of the internet to chance, Takahashi then founded the National Program for the Information Society, which promoted and expanded internet use in schools, hospitals, and the government. He even negotiated with drug lords to ensure people in their domains could also access the internet.
“Throughout the early nineties, the results started to show that the bet on the future was really the correct thing to do,” said Takahashi.
In 2017, Takahashi became the second Brazilian to be welcomed into the Internet Hall of Fame. He died of a heart attack at 71.
David Walden: IMP guy
June 7, 1942 – April 27, 2022
David Walden was not a strong academic student, but his undergraduate career at San Francisco State exposed him to the IBM 1620, the school’s only computer. It intrigued him enough that, after graduation, he moved across the country to work at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Walden soon joined R&D company Bolt, Beranek and Newman. Walden’s seven-person team was tapped by the Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop packet-switching technology for the ARPANET. The result was the first Internet Message Processors, or IMPs — a precursor to today’s routers. IMPs are what made possible the internet’s distributed networking model, compared to the decentralized model used by telecommunications companies of the day.
“It sort of dawned on me it was pretty important,” said Walden. “The telephone companies… they were saying it wouldn’t work. Well, my intuition at the time was, if the establishment is saying this is a bad thing, maybe it’s an important thing!”
With the exception of a one-year interlude to work at Norsk Data in Oslo, Walden stayed at BBN from 1967 until his retirement in 1995. Even in retirement, he continued writing and lecturing, including about TeX.
Died at 79 from mantle cell lymphoma.
Ken Knowlton: Studies in perception
June 6, 1931 – June 16, 2022
Shortly after earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT in 1962, Knowlton joined Bell Labs (later AT&T Bell Laboratories, now Nokia Bell Labs). There, he developed Bell Labs Flicks, or BEFLIX, a computer language for animating movies. One of his first uses for BEFLIX was self-referential when he produced an animated movie describing the technology used to make the movie.
BEFLIX pioneered the use of computer graphics in movies, which have since become a staple of Hollywood, though even Knowlton couldn’t predict the detail and fidelity that would eventually be possible. In a 2016 interview with futurist Ted Nelson, Knowlton’s reaction to the CGI in James Cameron’s Avatar was, “Wow, did everyone work so hard for that thing! … [I’d thought] it would take far too much effort; nothing like that will ever be done… but they did it!”
In 1966, Knowlton collaborated with Leon Harmon to convert a photograph into a computer-generated mosaic. Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I) was exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and became the first full frontal nude published in The New York Times. Knowlton and Harmon followed in 1969 with two more mosaics — and 43 years later, Knowlton and Jim Boulton collaborated to create a fourth installment in the Studies in Perception series, this time as an NFT.
Knowlton died at 91.
B. K. Syngal: Father of the Indian internet
1940 – July 9, 2022
After sleeping in tents to lay coaxial cable in jungles and deserts for Philips, Brijendra Kumar (B. K.) Syngal returned to his home country of India. He’d eventually become chairman of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (VSNL), a public-sector communications service provider — a position Syngal used to connect India with the nascent internet.
Starting with five cities in August 1995, the initial dial-up connections were unreliable and expensive. Syngal publicly apologized and asked for 10 weeks to improve the situation. Eight weeks later, enough servers, cables, and infrastructure has been installed to produce a stable experience. India had become Asia’s second country (after Japan) to be part of the nascent Internet, earning Syngal the nickname “Father of the Indian Internet.”
This early adoption sped the development of India’s software industry from $60 million in 1992 to $2 billion just five years later, with over $130 billion in software exports today.
Among Syngal’s many accolades were the Telecom Man of the Decade Award from Wisitex Foundation and being named one of “50 Stars of Asia” in Business Week magazine in 1998. In 2020, Syngal published his memoir, Telecom Man: Leading From the Front in India’s Digital Revolution.
He was 82 when he passed.
Peter Eckersley: Encryption everywhere
June 15, 1979 – September 2, 2022
Peter Eckersley put his Ph.D. in computer science and law to good use: his short life and career had a lasting impact on online security, privacy, net neutrality, and artificial intelligence.
From 2006 to 2018, Eckersley worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a variety of roles, including chief computer scientist. He was central to a collaboration with Mozilla and the University of Michigan to found Let’s Encrypt, a nonprofit that provides SSL certificates for free. Previously, online publishers were expected to pay a premium to encrypt their web traffic — a financial and technical cost that could marginalize or even penalize small, independent, or nonprofit sites. With Let’s Encrypt, website security become accessible to all, with more than 300 million sites now secured by its certificates.
A related EFF initiative Eckersley contributed to was HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension that became so popular, it was folded into most browsers’ core functionality, with the extension being retired at the end of this year.
Eckersley left the EFF in 2018 to found the AI Objectives Institute, an organization devoted to setting better goals for society and ensuring that AI-enhanced systems are working toward them. He was only 43 when he died of colon cancer.
Kathleen Booth: The first assembler
July 9, 1922 – September 29, 2022
In 1946, Kathleen Britten was working as a research scientist at the British Rubber Producers’ Research Association, where her future husband, Andrew Booth, needed a way to automate the computations in his crystallography research. The two began designing the Automatic Relay Computer, or ARC. Like its contemporaries such as ENIAC, ARC used relays and vacuum tubes, and programs were input via switches and other hardware.
After a 1947 visit to John von Neumann at Princeton University in New Jersey, Britten and Booth began designing the ARC’s successor. To write programs for the ARC2, Britten developed the first assembly language, known as contracted notation. Britten also wrote the software for the duo’s next machine, the Simple Electronic Computer, their first all-digital computer, followed soon after by the APE(X)C. The pair were married in 1950.
These developments and multiple publications on the subject led the Booths to found Birkbeck College’s Department of Numerical Automation, now the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. Kathleen Booth’s legacy at Birkbeck also includes both a lecture series and a scholarship.
After leaving Birkbeck in the early 1960s, Booth served as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and then at Lakehead University, both in Canada, until her retirement in 1978. She died at 100 years of age.
Margot Comstock: Cracked the password
October 11, 1940 – October 7, 2022
In 1979 when gameshow contestant Margot Comstock told the Password Plus host she was going to use her winnings to buy a computer, he seemed baffled. When she tried to buy a TRS-80, the Radio Shack employee was rude to her. (She bought an Apple II Plus instead.) And when she picked up Byte magazine, she found it aimed at programmers, not enthusiasts like her.
But Comstock was never dissuaded. Rather than bow to the status quo, she and her husband, Al Tommervik, set out to reshape the home computing landscape by co-founding Softalk, a monthly magazine aimed at Apple II users. Comstock and Tommervik, both experienced writers and editors, sent the magazine’s first issues for free to all registered Apple II owners, swiftly building a broad reader base. With Comstock as editor in chief, Softalk‘s guest columnists, reader polls, and playful tone all emphasized that computing should be for everyone.
The magazine ran for only four short years, but its 48 issues changed the industry. “There was no other single computer magazine that offered the breadth of information and fun about so many different aspects of the Apple II as Softalk,” said Steven Weyhrich, author of Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life and Times of the Apple II Computer.
Comstock died a few days shy of her 83rd birthday.
Frederick P. Brooks Jr.: 360 perspective
April 19, 1931 – November 17, 2022
Once upon a time, mainframe models from the same manufacturer were not compatible with each other; software had to be rewritten for each hardware model — and each generation of that model.
Along came Frederick Brooks Jr., who joined IBM in 1956. Brooks proposed a common mainframe design, enabling a shared software suite. It was a gamble: if the initiative flopped, IBM would fall behind its mainframe competitors, potentially ruining the company.
But the resulting IBM System/360 family of computers and the OS/360 software package, announced in 1964, were a massive success, ensuring IBM’s grip on the industry for decades to come.
Brooks later collected his lessons in management and computer architecture (a coin he termed) in the 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month. Among his distillations was the counterintuitive Brooks’ Law: adding workers to a late project will only delay it further.
Once the 360 family’s success was assured, Brooks left IBM to found the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s computer science department, which he chaired for 20 years. Brooks retired from teaching in 2015. He died at 91, two years after suffering a stroke.
See also: Tech luminaries we lost in 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017
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