2011 in Review: Tech Luminaries We Lost

Jack Keil Wolf

Disk Drivin' Man

February 1926 - February 2011

There's a reason why the amount of information we can store on hard disks keeps growing -- and its name is Jack Wolf. That may be an overstatement, but it's not too much to say that Wolf did more than almost anyone else to use math to cram more data into magnetic drives, flash memory and electronic communications channels.

Wolf began his professional life as an information theorist, teaching and working at RCA and Bell Labs, with much of his work relating to compressing information. But in 1984, he moved to the new Center for Magnetic Recording Research at the University of California, San Diego. "I knew nothing about magnetic recording," he admitted in a 2010 lecture. "Not only did I not know how to spell coercivity, but the first time I mentioned it in a talk I mispronounced it. But UCSD reluctantly made me an offer as the first faculty member in CMRR."

It was a good choice. Wolf and his students, dubbed the "Wolf pack," cross-pollinated magnetic drive design with information theory, applying compression in increasingly creative ways, and spread Wolf's ideas throughout the industry.

Julius Blank

Silicon Machinist

June 1925 - September 2011

Silicon Valley had many builders, but one of them literally built some of the high-tech hub's first silicon-making machines. Julius Blank was one of the "Traitorous Eight" engineers who founded Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957. He and his seven colleagues had acquired that unflattering sobriquet because they decided to strike out on their own just a year after Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Shockley had recruited them to create a new kind of transistor at Shockley Labs.

The Eight included future Intel founders Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, but the lesser-known Blank had skills critical to the new venture: Before going to college, he had been trained as a machinist. Along with eventual venture capitalist Gene Kleiner, Blank built Fairchild's machine shop, created the manufacturing machinery and outfitted the rest of the fab. Within nine months, Fairchild went from occupying an empty building in Mountain View, Calif., to shipping its first transistor.

How well did that first hand-built equipment hold up? In 1962, Fairchild set up its first offshore plant in Hong Kong, and no new equipment was required. "We took the old, ancient equipment from Mountain View," Blank told an interviewer in 2008. "They just put it in crates and shipped it overseas. It came over there rusty, but they just sandblasted it, put a coat of paint on it and put it together; it worked fine."

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