Notable tech deaths in 2011: the passing of giants

December 13, 2011

Earlier this year, there was outpouring of grief and remembrance for Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs, but Monday’s Google Doodle pulls into sharp focus the realization that the first wave of tech pioneers are leaving us as well.

Monday’s doodle commemorated Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel and one of the inventors of the integrated circuit, who died in 1990 — a man whom Jobs looked up to as a mentor. This year has seen the passing of Jobs, and several of the generation of tech pioneers that came before him.

Men and women who shaped the technology that we use everyday passed away with little of the fanfare that Jobs saw. This year saw the loss of other top executives who oversaw the rise of some of the most influential technology companies in the world: IBM’s John Opel, Motorola’s Robert Galvin, Fairchild Semiconductor’s Julius Blank, DEC’s Kenneth Olsen, and Sony’s Norio Ohga.

The list is even longer when you look at the pioneers of technology on whose shoulders today’s engineers and programmers stand. This year we also lost Dennis Ritchie, the computer scientist who invented the C programming language. We lost Jean Bartik, one of the original programmers of the ENIAC computer and one of the first women to work in computing. We lost John McCarthy, who was credited with coining the term “artificial intelligence,” and who invented the Lisp programming language. There was Daniel McCracken, who literally wrote the book on Fortran programming. And there was Robert Morris, a cryptographer who also had a hand in creating the UNIX computer operating system.

This year, the technology community also lost visionaries whose work is in the devices used by millions everyday. When you use the Web, think of Paul Baran, who came up with the idea of data packet switching and laid the groundwork for the Internet. Or Jack K. Wolf, whose work in information theory led to improvements in the way computers transmit and store data. Say a silent thanks to the late Michael Hart when you use your e-reader or to Edgar Villchur when you switch on a hearing aid. When you swipe that key fob past your office door, remember that it uses the RFID technology developed by Charles Walton and when you fire up a video game, think of Gerald A. Lawson, who worked on the first home console to use interchangeable game cartridges.

We live in a time of great innovation, where it’s easy to forget about the history of a few months ago, let alone a few decades. It’s great to look forward — that teetering feeling you get standing at the edge is what makes technology great — but it’s also important to take time and give thanks to those who’ve brought us this far.

And when you’re done with those remembrances, think of those the technology community lost too soon, such as Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old founder of Diaspora who was just starting to see the promise of his project.

Related stories:

Steve Jobs’s last words: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.’

Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy dead at 22

Gallery: Notable deaths of 2011

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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