14 tech luminaries we lost in 2021

Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs often work behind the scenes, garnering less recognition than their creations and companies. But these 14 heroes left lasting legacies that changed the course of history. They invented lights, computers, cars, and media; they founded Adobe, Gartner, Sinclair, and Silicon Valley; they fought for accessibility, freedom of information, and human rights.

As we reflect on the past year, we at Computerworld honor these exceptional innovators who passed away in the last 12 months.

Gideon Gartner: Analysis with Alacrity

March 13, 1935 – December 12, 2020

Gideon Gartner in 2010 Esther Dyson

Gideon Gartner in 2010

Gideon Gartner was born in Palestine and grew up in Brooklyn, where he showed promise as a musician. He passed up a musical scholarship to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT. He began his career at Philco and then IBM before finding himself on Wall Street as a technology analyst.

In 1979, Gartner recognized the role that personal computers would have in the operation of tech organizations. He founded Gartner Group, an IT advisory firm that targeted the computer users and CIOs who would soon be making business-defining decisions. Forty-odd years later, Gartner is still one of the world’s leading technology research and consulting companies.

One of Gartner Group’s hallmark products was the two-page analytical report, printed on a single sheet of paper. “When you have to do a 40- or 50- or 150-page document, it becomes so psychologically defeating to even think about completing it that it takes you forever,” said Gartner. By comparison, a concise, practical report could be produced, consumed, and applied on a daily basis.

Gartner also founded Soundview Technology (originally Gartner Securities), which was sold to Charles Schwab in 2003, and Giga Information Group (“Giga” being short for “Gideon Gartner”), which was purchased by Forrester Research, also in 2003. To all three of his companies, Gartner brought his unique insights and innovations.

“He had an unrivaled commitment to excellence within his work, products, management, and service to his clients,” wrote Jeffrey R. Yost, director of the Charles Babbage Institute, to which Gartner was a donor.

Gartner died at 85 from complications due to Alzheimer’s.

Paul Taylor: Communications Trailblazer

November 15, 1939 – January 11, 2021

Paul Taylor in 1968 Vermillion Films

Paul Taylor in 1968

Paul Taylor was born deaf in an era that had few accommodations for such disabilities. But with the support of his mother, who became a teacher for the deaf, Taylor refused to be held back. He earned a degree in chemical engineering and then a master’s degree before taking on engineering positions at McDonnell Douglas and Monsanto in St. Louis.

It was there in St. Louis that he adapted existing teletypewriters, or TTYs, into telecommunications devices for the deaf. In the late 1960s, Taylor paired TTYs with modems, enabling them to work over phone lines. Users on either end could type messages to each other, or send written messages to an operator who would then verbally relay the message. After building TTY networks in St. Louis and New York, Taylor was hired by the FCC to incorporate language supporting TTYs into the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Taylor spent thirty years as a professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. In 2002, he and his wife moved to Portland, Oregon, to help their daughter Irene raise their grandson, Jonas, who had developed early hearing loss. Irene filmed the award-winning 2007 documentary Hear and Now about her parents’ lives and their decision to get cochlear implants in their 60s.

Taylor died at 81 from complications due to Alzheimer’s.

Alice Recoque: A Calculating Planner

1929 – January 28, 2021

In 1966, French president Charles de Gaulle approved Plan Calcul, a government initiative to strengthen France’s computer industry. This led to the formation of computer manufacturer Compagnie internationale pour l’informatique (CII) in 1966.

One of CII’s founding engineers was Alice Recoque, who had previously designed the CAB500 mini-computer and co-directed the design of the CAB1500. At CII, she designed the Mitra computer. The Mitra 15, released in 1971, was used in nuclear power plants, for guiding missiles, and as nodes in CYCLADES, the French network that inspired features of the ARPANET. Over 8,000 Mitra 15 units were sold, many which remained in use through the 1990s.

In 1978, Recoque participated in the establishment of the organization Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), whose ongoing mission is to ensure computer technology does not infringe on individual freedoms and human rights.

Recoque became the director of artificial intelligence in CII’s Groupe Bull in 1985. Her work there included the development of KOOL, or knowledge representation object-oriented language.

Her contributions to French hardware and software development earned her recognition from La Société informatique de France and from the French government with the Ordre national du Mérite. Recoque was 91 when she passed.

Lou Ottens: Storage Star

June 21, 1926 – March 6, 2021

Lou Ottens in 2007 Jordi Huisman (CC BY 4.0)

Lou Ottens in 2007

Reel-to-reel tape recorders were slow, complex, and cumbersome. As head of product development at Philips, Lou Ottens was in a position to do something about it. In the early 1960s, he set out to create a smaller, simpler, consumer-friendly audio storage medium.

The result was the cassette tape, an invention that revolutionized the music industry. Not only could fans carry entire albums in their pockets, but anyone could record and distribute their own original music and mixtapes. Cassette decks became a standard feature in automobiles, and the medium led to the popularization of audiobooks, or “books on tape.”

“We expected it would be a success — but not a revolution,” said Ottens in the 2017 documentary Cassette.

Cassettes impacted more than music and artists; before the floppy disk, it was also a de facto data storage medium for early personal computers. Some European radio stations would even broadcast computer programs to be recorded onto cassettes.

Ottens also led the development of the compact disc at Philips, but it’s his original invention that’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity: sales of cassettes grew consistently from 2015 to 2020, with the top cassette album of 2020 coming from Lady Gaga.

Ottens retired in 1986. He was 94 when he passed.

Isamu Akasaki: LED the Way

January 30, 1929 – April 1, 2021

Isamu Akasaki 大臣官房人事課 (CC BY 4.0)

Isamu Akasaki

By the 1960s, red and green light-emitting diodes had been invented, but they couldn’t be combined to form white light without blue LEDs, which proved elusive. Many scientists, convinced it was a futile effort, gave up their research.

Isamu Akasaki did not. After a career at the company that would become Fujitsu, he earned a PhD from Nagoya University in 1964. From there, his persistence into his chosen field of research took decades to pay off — but by the early 1990s, he and his colleagues had succeeded in creating blue LEDs.

Thanks to Akasaki’s discovery, LEDs, which consume less energy and last longer than either incandescent or fluorescent lights, are now ubiquitous, used in lightbulbs, smartphones, television and computer displays, and more.

Akasaki’s groundbreaking work earned him the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with his two co-inventors, as well as the 2011 Japanese Order of Culture, and the 2009 Kyoto Prize.

Akasaki died at 92 from pneumonia.

Jack Minker: Human Advocate

July 4, 1927 – April 9, 2021

Jack Minker University of Maryland

Jack Minker

After working at such companies as Bell Aircraft Corp. and RCA, Jack Minker returned to school to earn his PhD. He later joined the University of Maryland in 1967 and became the first chair of its computer science department in 1974. He co-founded the areas of disjunctive logic programming and deductive databases, such as those used in the language Datalog. He also researched artificial intelligence and wrote or edited several books, including Logic-Based Artificial Intelligence.

Just as notable was Minker’s work on behalf of computer scientists’ human rights. Minker worked extensively with the Committee of Concerned Scientists (CSS), for whom he served as vice chairman from 1973 to 2021. In this role, he documented the violation of computer scientists’ human rights in countries such as China, Iran, and the Soviet Union; petitioned for an International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Georgia, then a Soviet republic; fought for the release of Soviet scientists including Anatoly Shcharansky, Aleksandr Lerner, and Andrei Sakharov; and served as editor and intermediary for papers written by Russian scientists intended for English publication. He also served as an honorary board member of the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry and volunteered with the Union Council for Soviet Jewry. He detailed these efforts in his memoir, Scientific Freedom and Human Rights: Scientists of Conscience During the Cold War.

Minker also served as national program chair for the Association for Computing Machinery from 1968 to 1970 and chaired the Advisory Committee on Computing to the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1980 to 1982. He was honored for his work by the CSS, the ACM, the University of Maryland, and the New York Academy of Sciences. He was 93 when he died.

Charles Geschke: A License to Print

September 11, 1939 – April 16, 2021

Charles Geschke Adobe

Charles Geschke

After leaving seminary, Chuck Geschke earned a PhD in computer science in 1972. That same year, he joined Xerox PARC, the legendary Palo Alto research center that birthed so many technological innovations. One of them was a printing technology Geschke developed with co-worker John Warnock. When Xerox chose not to move forward with the project, Geschke and Warnock took it with them to found Adobe in 1982.

Steve Jobs, whose work on the Macintosh was also inspired by PARC, offered to purchase Adobe in 1983 for $5 million. Geschke and Warnock opted instead to license their PostScript technology for Apple’s LaserWriter printer. Released in 1985, the printer heralded a revolution in desktop publishing and printing. Adobe followed in 1987 with the release of Adobe Illustrator and in 1993 with the PDF format, cementing the company’s role in graphic design and information exchange.

This success brought with it some undesirable attention: in 1992, Geschke was kidnapped and held for $650,000 ransom. He was recovered unharmed four days later, and he and his wife resumed their daily lives, refusing to recruit bodyguards or otherwise seal themselves away.

Geschke, who at times served as president, COO, and co-chairman of the board of Adobe, was recognized multiple times for his contributions, receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2008 and the Marconi Prize in 2010. His company, which has 20,000 employees and a market value of $245 billion, has consistently been ranked one of the best places to work.

“I could never have imagined having a better, more likable, or more capable business partner,” said Warnock in a statement.

Geschke died at 81 from melanoma.

Daniel Kaminsky: Internet Savior

February 7, 1979 – April 23, 2021

Daniel Kaminsky Dave Bullock (CC BY 2.0)

Dan Kaminsky in 2009

When Dan Kaminsky was 11 years old, his mother grounded him from the internet after he was caught hacking into military computers. He didn’t learn his lesson, going on to establish a career as a computer security researcher.

Most notably, in 2008, while working as the director of penetration testing at security firm IOActive, Kaminsky discovered a fundamental flaw in DNS, the method by which the internet translates domain names into IP addresses. After collaborating with major IT firms and the US Department of Homeland Security on a fix, he detailed the vulnerability in a presentation at Black Hat Briefings.

DNS wasn’t Kaminsky’s first contribution to internet security. In 2006, Sony’s copy-protection scheme infected computers with rootkits, which Kaminsky determined to have affected over a half-million networks.

Kaminsky was just as interested in using technology to solve problems of biology and accessibility: he developed DanKam, an app to assist with colorblindness, and helped improve hearing aids and telehealth tools. He assisted with COVID-19 research well before vaccines became available. His work was often motivated by what he found morally right, not what was financially lucrative.

Kaminsky was the co-founder and chief scientist of WhiteOps, a frequent speaker at DEF CON, and a Computerworld guest columnist. He died at 42 from diabetic ketoacidosis.

Makoto Nagao: Broke the Language Barrier

October 4, 1936 – May 23, 2021

Makoto Nagao ITU

Makoto Nagao

After earning a PhD in engineering in 1966 from Kyoto University, Makoto Nagao stayed there until 2003, starting as an assistant professor and culminating in a term as the school’s 23rd president. During this time, he developed some of the first machine-translation systems.

His contributions to machine translation included directing the Mu project, which made the first successful machine translations between Japanese and English, using abstracts of science papers. Nagao proposed a model for example-based machine translation, a system of translation by analogy that is now widely used; and he developed JUMAN (Japanese User-extensible Morphological Analyzer), a parser for languages such as Chinese and Japanese that do not have explicit word delimiters. Nagao was also a pioneer in intelligent image processing and natural language processing for the Japanese language.

Just as he connected languages, Nagao also connected fellow scientists, co-founding the Asia-Pacific Association for Machine Translation. The organization now grants an annual Nagao Award to those “who have contributed to research and development leading to or facilitating commercialization of machine translation systems.”

After retiring from Kyoto University, Nagao served as the 14th director of the National Diet Library, a Japanese analog to the United States Library of Congress. There, he helped develop Ariadne, an educational content mangement system used by digital libraries.

For his work in making information available across languages and systems, Nagao was the recipient of the International Association for Machine Translation’s Award of Honour (1997) and the Japan Prize (2005), among many other recognitions. He was 84 when he passed.

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