2011's notable tech industry deaths

Steve Jobs, Ken Olsen among giants lost to industry in 2011

The death of Steve Jobs at the age of 56 on Oct. 5, 2011, triggered an unprecedented level of grieving and tributes across the IT industry (and well beyond). And while Jobs was the most high profile technology innovator to die this year, he was far from the only significant loss for the tech industry. Here's a look back at those who died this year whose impact on the industry and our lives will carry on.

2010's notable tech industry deaths

2009's notable deaths in IT

Kenneth Olsen, 84 (February)

Kenneth Olsen , 84 (February)

This computer industry pioneer co-founded and led minicomputer king Digital Equipment Corp. for 35 years. As DEC's leader, Olsen oversaw the company's epic battles vs. IBM and its mainframes for the hearts and business of IT shops – a fight DEC eventually lost as the era of fast, cheap and networked PCs took hold in the 1980s and 1990s. During its heyday, DEC was the second largest computer company in the world with $14 billion in sales and its PDPs, VAXes and DECnet network technology became staples in many organizations. Today's IT industry remains filled with companies whose founders once worked at DEC or with its gear. Digital was acquired in 1998 by Compaq for $9.6 billion.

Paul Baran

Paul Baran , 84 (March)

His Cold War era invention of packet switching technology helped to lay the foundation for the Internet. Baran, a native of Poland whose family moved to Philadelphia when he was a youngster, developed his concept of a survivable store-and-forward communications network while at RAND Corp. in  the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s. That concept of packet switching, a digital communications method involving the movement of data divvied up into what Baran called "message blocks" over shared and distributed networks, later found its way into the Department of Defense's ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which evolved into the Internet. His accomplishments were recognized by the industry many times over via awards such as the Marconi Prize, making him one of tech's most decorated innovators .

Jean Bartik

Jean Bartik, 86 (March)

Born Betty Jean Jennings, Bartik (shown on the left) gained fame as one of the lead programmers of ENIAC, the first general-purpose electrical computer. But credit for Bartik and other women who programmed ENIAC was slow coming, with the men who built the machine getting the early credit in the 1940s. Bartik was quoted as saying: "I was just at the right place at the right time. It was divine providence or fate that selected me to be an ENIAC programmer." She received honors such as a Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society, and was inducted into the Computer History Museum as well. Bartik went on to work on other early computers such as the BINAC and UNIVAC I.

Tom West

Tom West , 71 (May)

This computer hardware engineer gained prominence as the daring leader of Data General's 32-bit microcomputer team profiled by Tracy Kidder in his 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Soul of the New Machine" (West is shown here on the right, with Kidder, in 1982 during a Computer Museum event). The Eclipse MV/8000 (code-named Eagle) briefly gave Data General a market lead at a time vs. DEC between the mainframe's decline and the PC's rise. West retired from Data General as chief technologist in 1998, and Data General itself was acquired by EMC the next year. The Boston Globe quoted Data General Founder and ex-CEO Edson de Castro at the time of West's death as saying: "Tom was a complicated individual, and you really can't put him in a pigeonhole. He was kind of a conglomerate between a hippie, an old salt, a very competent engineer, a literary buff, a harsh critic, and there's probably more than that. You weren't always sure which Tom you'd be talking to on any given day."

Jack  Keil Wolf

Jack  Keil Wolf, 76 (May)

He spent his career in academics, including as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California at San Diego since 1984. While there he led the Signal Processing Group "Wolfpack" at UC San Diego's Center for Magnetic Recording Research. Wolf might be best known for his work as an information theorist, which led to huge improvements in transmitting and storing data. The Slepian-Wolf Theorem, published in 1973 with colleague David Slepian, is considered a cornerstone of information theory, explaining how separate information sources can compress their output streams efficiently. It has applications in everything from video transmission systems to flash memory devices to sensor networks. Wolf's work in magnetic recording also led to advances in storing more data in smaller devices, such as hard drives. Wolf posthumously won a Marconi Prize this year for his work.

Daniel McCracken

Daniel McCracken, 81 (July)

This computer scientist's A Guide to Fortran Programming first published in 1961 and dozens of other textbooks made him a best selling-author who helped teach many to use computers. McCracken was a professor of computer sciences at City College of New York and served in industry leadership roles, such as president of the Association for Computing Machinery (which has an interview with him here from 2008).

Michael Hart

Michael Hart, 64 (September)

Widely seen as the Father of the e-book, Hart founded Project Gutenberg  in 1971 with the digitization of the Declaration of Independence, and not long after, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare at the Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Project Gutenberg, named after the 15th century inventor of the printing press, was established to distribute copyright-free books (including Hart's own "A Brief History of the Internet") for download in various formats. While there are other online book sources these days, from Amazon to Google, some still see Project Gutenberg as a source for getting around some of the digital rights management restrictions imposed by others.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs,  56 (October)

The Apple co-founder and former CEO's death following a battle with pancreatic cancer drew tributes from around the globe from technology leaders to everyday Apple customers. Jobs was remembered for his creativity, vision and attention to detail when it came to customer usage. His reinvigorating of Apple after being let go years earlier has become the stuff of business legend. Even rivals such as Microsoft honored Jobs, lowering flags at its offices to half-staff .

Robert Galvin

Robert Galvin, 89 (October)

The son of Motorola's founder Paul Galvin, Robert Galvin led the company for 29 years himself and made other significant contributions to the wireless industry . While Robert Galvin was CEO, Motorola created the radio that transmitted the first words from the moon to Earth, demonstrated the first portable cellphones, began selling the first commercial cellphones, and made innovations in two-way radios, televisions and laser barcode scanners. In addition, under Galvin's leadership, Motorola developed the Six Sigma process for quality management in response to growing competition from Japanese manufacturers. The system has been adopted by hundreds of companies around the world. He was honored with a Marconi Society Lifetime Achievement Award this year.

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie, 70 (October)

This software developer, known by the Unix username "dmr", brought the world the C programming language and Unix operating system. Ritchie was part of a dynamic software development duo with Ken Thompson at Bell Labs , which they joined in 1967 and 1966, respectively. Ritchie created the C programming language, which replaced the B programming language Thompson invented. The two later went on to create Unix, initially for minicomputers and written in assembly language, in 1969, and written in C in 1973. Unix went on to become key software for critical computing infrastructure around the world, though wasn't for everyone. Ritchie once said: "UNIX is very simple, it just needs a genius to understand its simplicity." Unix , of course, became the inspiration for newer operating systems including Linux and Apple's iOS .

2010's notable tech industry deaths

2009's notable deaths in IT

John Opel, 86 (November)

John Opel, 86 (November)

John Opel, who served as IBM CEO from 1981 to 1985, oversaw Big Blue as the company ushered in the PC era, as well as successfully resolved antitrust litigation with the U.S. government. Opel, IBM's fifth CEO, started working for the company in 1949 selling and installing electronic accounting machines and time clocks in the Missouri Ozarks. He quickly ascended the corporate ranks though. In 1959, he was noticed by then-CEO Thomas J. Watson, who promoted Opel to be his assistant. Opel oversaw the launch of IBM's System 360 mainframe family in 1964.

Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 22 (November)

The Soviet-born software developer and three New York University classmates created Diaspora, an open source social networking alternative to Facebook focused on enabling users to maintain high levels of privacy and control over their data.

The project garnered initial buzz in 2010 when the team raised $200,000 in funding through kickstarter, and even got a donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who described the project as "cool" in a Wired.com interview. Source code for Diaspora was released in September 2010 and the network itself was launched in November 2011, though it was still labeled as being in Alpha mode a year later. Some of Diaspora's concepts, such as grouping friends into closed "Aspects" to allow for private sharing, are similar to efforts now being touted by Facebook and Google with their social networks.

Charles Walton

Charles Walton, 89 (November)

Known as the father of RFID , Walton created technology in the 1970s and 1980s that is now common everywhere from warehouses to retail stores to public libraries. RFID technology beat out barcodes for many applications and is paving the way for technologies such as near-field communications (NFC) being used for e-wallets.

According to a story on the history of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in RFID Journal , Mario Cardullo received a patent in 1973 for an active RFID tag with rewritable memory and that same year, "Charles Walton, a California entrepreneur, received a patent for a passive transponder used to unlock a door without a key. A card with an embedded transponder communicated a signal to a reader near the door. When the reader detected a valid identity number stored within the RFID tag, the reader unlocked the door. Walton licensed the technology to Schlage, a lock maker, and other companies." Like many wireless pioneers, Walton got a start working with such technology for the military -- in his case, the Army Signal Corps, after studying electrical engineering in college. He later spent a decade at IBM, then started his own company called Proximity Devices to make devices based on his wireless patents. The first patent to mention RFID, for a "portable radio frequency emitting identifier," was awarded to Proximity in 1983.

Charles Walton, 89 (November)

Charles Walton, 89 (November)

Known as the Father of RFID , Walton created  technology in the 1970s and 1980s that is now common everywhere from warehouses to retail stores to public libraries. RFID technology beat out barcodes for many applications and is paving the way for technologies such as near-field communications (NFC) being used for eWallets.

According to a story on the history of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in RFID Journal, Mario Cardullo received a patent in 1973 for an active RFID tag with rewritable memory and that same year “Charles Walton, a California entrepreneur, received a patent for a passive transponder used to unlock a door without a key. A card with an embedded transponder communicated a signal to a reader near the door. When the reader detected a valid identity number stored within the RFID tag, the reader unlocked the door. Walton licensed the technology to Schlage, a lock maker, and other companies.” Like many wireless pioneers, Walton got a start working with such technology for the military – in his case, the Army Signal Corps, after studying electrical engineering in college. He later spent a decade at IBM, then started his own company called Proximity Devices to make devices based on his wireless patents. The first patent to mention RFID, for a "portable radio frequency emitting identifier," was awarded to Proximity in 1983.