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Tech luminaries we lost in 2011

Frank Hayes | Jan. 3, 2012
It's been a rough year for the IT industry. Here's one last look at some of the people who made a big difference.

Paul Baran

Packet Thinker

April 1926 - March 2011

Working to make electronic communications bulletproof at the height of the Cold War, Paul Baran developed what would eventually become a core technology of the Internet: packet switching. Baran was a researcher at the Rand Corp. think tank in 1961 when he suggested that messages could be broken into pieces, sent to a destination by multiple routes if necessary and then reassembled upon arrival to guarantee delivery.

Baran wasn't the only one to think of the idea -- U.K. researcher Donald Davies came up with a remarkably similar idea at about the same time and gave it the name "packet switching." But the U.S. Air Force liked Baran's version of what was essentially an inexpensive, unreliable network with intelligence at the edges. AT&T, the dominant U.S. telephone company, didn't -- it had an expensive, reliable network, and company engineers publicly scoffed at Baran's idea.

However, packet switching was adopted for Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet, and eventually for local-area networks in the form of Ethernet. Today, even phone calls are typically sent in digital packets. (This hour-long video interview shows Paul Baran receiving a 2005 Computer History Museum Fellow Award.)

Jean Bartik

Last of the First Programmers

December 1924 - March 2011

Jean Bartik was the last surviving member of the original programming team for the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer. But that understates her work. Bartik, the only female math graduate in her 1945 college class, was hired to make the physical connections that let the ENIAC perform artillery calculations, and she served as a lead programmer on the project. But Bartik also developed circuit logic and did design work under the direction of ENIAC's hardware developer, J. Presper Eckert.

After ENIAC, Bartik followed Eckert to work on both hardware and software for the commercial Univac I mainframe and the specialized BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer). But once the Univac was complete, Bartik retired at age 26 in 1951 to raise a family. She returned to a much-changed IT industry in 1967 and worked as an editor at several analyst companies until she was laid off in 1985, when she was in her 60s.

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."


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