2011 in Review: Tech Luminaries We Lost

John McCarthy

Intelligence, Artificial and Otherwise

September 1927 - October 2011

He may be best known as the creator of the Lisp programming language and as the "father of artificial intelligence" (he coined the term in 1956), but John McCarthy's influence in IT reached far beyond would-be thinking machines. For example, in 1957 McCarthy started the first project to implement time-sharing on a computer, and that initiative sparked more elaborate time-sharing projects including Multics, which in turn led to the development of Unix.

In an early 1970s presentation, McCarthy suggested that people would one day buy and sell goods online, which led researcher Whitfield Diffie to develop public-key cryptography for authenticating e-commerce documents. In 1982, McCarthy even proposed a "space elevator" that was eventually considered by a government lab as an alternative to rockets.

But McCarthy's first love was A.I., which turned out to be harder than he first thought. In the 1960s, McCarthy predicted that, with Pentagon funding, working A.I. would be achieved within a decade. It wasn't -- as McCarthy later joked, real A.I. would require "1.8 Einsteins and one-tenth of the resources of the Manhattan Project."

Ken Olsen

The Digital Man

February 1926 - February 2011

As an engineer working at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s, Ken Olsen noticed that students lined up to use an outdated computer called the TX-0, even though a much faster mainframe was available. The difference? The mainframe ran batch jobs, while the TX-0 (which Olsen had helped develop as a grad student) allowed online interactivity.

In 1957, Olsen and a colleague, Harlan Anderson, took that insight and $70,000 in venture capital money and started Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) to make smaller, more interactive machines. The company's PDP minicomputers were inexpensive enough that a corporate department could own one (a PDP-7 was used to develop the first version of Unix at Bell Labs).

Olsen's management approach as CEO -- hire very smart people and expect them to perform as adults -- helped DEC become the second biggest computer maker after IBM. But Olsen was also opinionated and sometimes stubborn. He publicly grumbled about Unix (calling it "snake oil") even as his company sold lots of Unix workstations, and DEC was late to join the move to PCs. DEC's sales declined, and in July 1992, Olsen was forced to resign from the company he founded. DEC was sold to Compaq six years later.

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