Tech luminaries we lost in 2016

By Ken Gagne Jun 12th 2017

We say a fond farewell to 18 men and women who left a lasting impression on the tech industry

  • In Memoriam

    Image credit: NSA

    In Memoriam

    In 2016, the world got a little bit smaller as we said goodbye to many of the tech industry's founders. Yet those innovators left behind legacies and technology that brought us all closer — whether it's the internet we use daily, digital artwork that inspires us or a futuristic vision we still strive to realize. They were scientists, astronauts, artists and code-breakers; some connected the world, while others flew beyond it. Here are 18 men and women whose contributions to IT and society will be long remembered.

  • Ann Caracristi: Feb. 1, 1921 — Jan. 10, 2016

    Image credit: Thomas Machnik

    Ann Caracristi: Feb. 1, 1921 — Jan. 10, 2016

    Ceiling breaker
    Some barriers are easier to overcome than others. Ann Caracristi broke through them all in her 50-year career for the U.S. government. During World War II, Caracristi worked for the Army Signal Intelligence Service, sorting and analyzing messages from the Japanese Army. Unlike most cryptanalysts, Caracristi doggedly delivered her findings as high up the chain as they needed to go, ensuring important information wasn't lost in the bureaucracy. After the war, Caracristi joined the Armed Forces Security Agency, which later became the National Security Agency. She was first female employee there to achieve the "super-grade" GS-18 pay scale and later served as the NSA's first female deputy director. Caracristi was 94.

  • Harold Cohen: May 1, 1928 — April 27, 2016

    Image credit: New York Times

    Harold Cohen: May 1, 1928 — April 27, 2016

    Computer-generated ingenuity
    The career of British-born painter Harold Cohen was defined by short projects that ballooned into a lifetime. An invitation in 1968 to spend a year teaching at the University of California, San Diego, turned into a 26-year profession. Growing bored with traditional media, he taught himself to code and developed Aaron, a program that generated complex works of art. Aaron's creations were featured in galleries and science museums around the world, with Cohen often referring to Aaron not as his invention or tool, but as his collaborator (watch this video). Cohen also served as the director of UCSD's now-defunct Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. He was 87.

  • Jane Fawcett: March 4, 1921 — May 21, 2016

    Image credit: Computer History Museum

    Jane Fawcett: March 4, 1921 — May 21, 2016

    War hero
    Before Alan Turing pioneered code-breaking computers, Bletchley Park depended on its staffers' own abilities to recognize and decode patterns. And 20-year-old Jane (Hughes) Fawcett was the one working on May 25, 1941, who recognized that the encoded message before her detailed the location of the Bismarck. Just the day before, the German warship had sunk the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood. Fawcett decoded the Bismarck's route back to France for repairs. This discovery enabled England to find, attack and destroy the ship two days later, on May 27. After the war, Fawcett toured as an opera singer. She was 95.

  • Thomas J. Perkins: Jan. 7, 1932 — June 7, 2016

    Image credit: Peter Ellenby

    Thomas J. Perkins: Jan. 7, 1932 — June 7, 2016

    A capital idea
    In 1973, after a decade as a general manager at HP, Tom Perkins co-founded Kleiner-Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm with a unique philosophy. Said Perkins: "Venture capital has to be done in a different way. You don't just put your money in with a team of people and see what happens. No ... every company is going to have a crisis ... You will need help. And we will be there to help you." Some of the companies that grew from Perkins' investments include Netscape, Amazon and biotech firm Genentech. Although not as prolific as his ex-wife, Danielle Steel, Perkins wrote four books, including his memoir, Valley Boy: The Education of Tom Perkins. He was 84.

  • John Ellenby: Jan. 9, 1941 — Aug. 17, 2016

    Image credit: Ohlfs family

    John Ellenby: Jan. 9, 1941 — Aug. 17, 2016

    Going off the grid
    If the TV show Halt and Catch Fire were an accurate portrayal of the race to create the first commercial laptop, John Ellenby would be the star. In 1979, Ellenby left his work at Xerox PARC to found GRiD Systems, which in 1982 produced the Compass, the first clamshell laptop. The computer was popular in government, including NASA, where it was included on the Challenger space shuttle and later recovered in working condition. Ellenby later founded GeoVector, a leader in augmented reality. Ellenby was 75.

  • Keith Ohlfs: June 29, 1964 — Oct. 26, 2016

    Image credit: NASA

    Keith Ohlfs: June 29, 1964 — Oct. 26, 2016

    The NeXT big thing
    Steve Jobs may have been a showman, but Keith Ohlfs was the behind-the-scenes architect. After earning his degree in graphic design, Ohlfs' first job was at NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in 1985 after he was ousted from Apple. As NeXT's UI architect, Ohlfs created the animations with which Jobs introduced the NeXT computer in 1988. Many of Ohlfs' user interface elements became part of Apple's Mac OS X, such as the spinning beach ball cursor. Ohlfs later worked as a UI architect for DreamWorks Animation, WebTV and VUDU, among others. "Keith was a driven professional, a great friend, always a goof with a laugh or joke," wrote friend and former NeXT and WebTV co-worker Jeff Yaksick. "He touched many lives and gave his all to provide for his family and make a dent in the universe. He will be fondly remembered by many folks, I have no doubt." Ohlfs was 52.

  • George Nauflett Sr. :Feb. 9, 1932 — Oct. 28, 2016

    Image credit: NASA

    George Nauflett Sr. :Feb. 9, 1932 — Oct. 28, 2016

    Creative innovator
    George Nauflett joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950, when segregation was still the law of the land. After earning his Ph.D., Nauflett joined the U.S. Navy as a chemist. When a material used in American and Russian satellites was found to be carcinogenic, Nauflett developed an alternative. He was a frequent presenter at the Aerospace Environmental Technology Conference, and his work was widely cited by his peers. Nauflett earned 26 patents over the course of his career and was featured in the 2004 book The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity.

  • John Glenn, 95: July 18, 1921 — Dec. 8, 2016

    Image credit: NASA

    John Glenn, 95: July 18, 1921 — Dec. 8, 2016

    Ad astra
    Any summary of a life as legendary as John Glenn's would only scratch the surface. After earning his wings with the Marines in World War II and the Korean War, Glenn became a test pilot, preparing him for the most experimental flight of all. In 1958, the year of NASA's founding, he was recruited as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. In 1962, as pilot of the Friendship 7, Glenn became the fifth person in space and the first to orbit Earth. In 1998, he became the oldest astronaut when he returned to space at the age of 77. In the intervening years, he served his country as an Ohio state senator for 24 years, during which he was the primary author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. Before, during and after his historical flights, Glenn was a hero in an era in which explorers and role models seem rare. He was 95 when he made his final flight to the stars.

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