Tech luminaries we lost in 2011

Some helped build an industry, while others helped save lives through technology. But all 13 of these tech pioneers shaped the future

By Frank Hayes, Computerworld |  IT Management, Apple, Steve Jobs

Morris joined the Bell Labs research group in 1960 to work on compiler design, but by 1970 he was interested in encryption. He found a World War II U.S. Army encryption machine, the M-209, in a Lower Manhattan junk shop. Morris, Ritchie and University of California researcher Jim Reeds developed a way to break the machine's encryption system and planned to publish a paper on the subject in 1978.

Before they did, they sent a copy to the National Security Agency, the U.S. government's code-breaking arm -- and soon received a visit from a "retired gentleman from Virginia," according to Ritchie. The "gentleman" didn't threaten them, but he suggested discretion because the encryption techniques were still being used by some countries. The researchers decided not to publish the paper -- and eight years later, Morris left to join the NSA, where he led the agency's National Computer Security Center until 1994.

Ironically, it was Morris's son, Robert Tappan Morris, who brought him into the national spotlight: In 1988, the younger Morris, then 22, released an early computer worm that brought much of the Internet to its knees. The senior Morris said at the time that he hadn't paid much attention to his son's interest in programming: "I had a feeling this kind of thing would come to an end the day he found out about girls," he said. "Girls are more of a challenge."

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


Originally published on Computerworld |  Click here to read the original story.
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