Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Wesley A. Clark, legendary computer engineer, dies at 88 (techrepublic.com)
231 points by ohjeez on Feb 26, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 26 comments

Here's my Wes Clark story...

About 6 years ago I went to his Brooklyn apartment for his birthday. I had never heard of him, but he's distant cousins with my wife's step father and we lived nearby. We get to his apartment and I start looking at the book collection... a lot of interesting math and computer science.

I started talking with him 1 on 1 and at some point he drops that he created the first personal computer. I'm ashamed to admit it, but in the back of my mind I was thinking "oh boy, this guy's not all there." But then he took me to his office and there's a poster of him with the LINC and I'm realizing that I've hit the motherlode of awesome computing history from a primary source.

He then showed me his current project: a working model Broadway stage for his granddaughter. It had to-scale working versions of everything, including the lights and actual mechanisms for drawing the curtains. Then he fired up his Mac with a 30" monitor and showed me that every piece had been laser cut from schematics that he had designed. In raw postscript. The entire thing was programmatically generated from a massive postscript program that was fully parameterized so he could change the dimensions of anything single component and the whole stage would be regenerated.

That programmatic modeling project was a big motivation for the work I've been doing to make parameterized 3d models for ergonomic keyboards (https://github.com/adereth/dactyl-keyboard).

I definitely experienced some cognitive dissonance watching an 82 year old flying around vim editing postscript. It was a trip and it was really inspiring to see someone his age still hacking.

Nice memory ,vivily told, thanks.

"I definitely experienced some cognitive dissonance watching an 82 year old flying around vim editing postscript."

Vi has been around for 30 odd years, and postscript since 1982. Each decade will bring a new crop of octogenarian vimers! At least until we get direct brain implant interfaces.

Thanks for sharing your anecdote. The greats really were -- and are -- that great.

That's a pretty great story. It's hard to believe how brilliant a lot of our predecessors really were, and it's very humbling when they pass away, to read all their great achievements that dwarf my own.

Rest in peace, and thanks for helping push the information age forward Mr. Clark.

Really thanks for sharing. Such stories make real a person that we others couldn't personally know.

I'm his grandson, not his colleague, so far be it from me to say he was a great man, but he was a great grandfather and an inspiration. He taught me an enormous amount, from logic to just how hard it can be to get people to adopt new technologies -- he eschewed word processing, writing every document directly in PostScript even up to the present -- but most importantly he showed me how important it is to love what you do, and for that I owe him a ton of my happiness and career.

Fare you the hell well, Gramps.

Sorry for your loss. Could you share some stories about him?

Everyone has stories, most better than me. I find my most vivid memory of experiencing him as an adult was that every time you spoke with him he'd have had some completely flabbergasting new life experience you'd never imagined. He was a guest on something like the second trip to China after Nixon, took seminars with Oppenheimer at Berkeley (he tended to call him Oppy), and may have been invited to help create an early ATM. The list goes on and on.

One Christmas, we were talking about how difficult it is to assess the accuracy of an algorithm when you only get a few tries because running it is expensive; he promptly told us about his experience with this problem, which he encountered driving plutonium nuggets across Richland, Washington. After the video from the ACM conference on personal workstations got published here, I learned for the first time he'd been fired from MIT three times for insubordination, and I never got a chance to ask him what the story there was...

Oh! And he actually made a physical turing machine good enough to do fairly sophisticated computations on. It ended up in my father's intro CS class at Princeton for many years.

And HN will of course appreciate one of his favorite one-liners:

Did you know that 49 is the lowest number that can be expressed as the square of 7 in only one way?

I am so envious of your experience.

My grandfather had his own achievements (including saving about 1,000 people from Hitler's concentration camps by arranging for transport out of Germany). But it sounds like your grandfather was much more fun to talk to.

He'd talk about computers for fun, at least. But try to convince him that the internet actually worked and you'd have a whole evening's conversation on your hands...

I'm still on the fence, too. The internet is still too young of an experiment. We are now at a stage where machines themselves are going online. I'm sure he would have loved seeing the next 24 Yeats unravel.

The Turing machine usually gets abbreviated TOTMTEWP: The Only Turing Machine That Ever Was, Probably.

I'd forgotten the 49 one liner. Love that joke.

I don't get the 49 joke, explain please?

It's a reference to a story about Ramanujan, who once (remarkably) told G. H. Hardy that 1729 wasn't a boring number because it was the smallest number that could be expressed as the sum of two cubes in more than one way. Sometimes trivial but always erudite in the best way, that was Wes.

It's like telling your only grandson he's your favorite grandson. 49 is the lowest and only number that can be expressed as the square of 7. But the phrasing makes you think there's a second (or more) number after it.

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing. :)

To learn more about the LINC (and why, in the grand scheme of things, it was so incredibly important):

- "The LINC Revolution", in "Biomedical Computing" by Joseph November: http://www.amazon.com/Biomedical-Computing-Digitizing-Univer...

- "Computing in the Middle Ages" by Severo Ornstein: http://www.amazon.com/Computing-Middle-Ages-Trenches-1955-19...

- "The Dream Machine" by M. Mitchell Waldrop: http://www.amazon.com/The-Dream-Machine-Licklider-Revolution...


I think one key to understanding his work is to understand how he helped make computers more accessible.

Among many things, he believed that "a computer should be just another piece of lab equipment." That they should be a basic tool.

Clark designed "small" computers, and it is no coincidence that the Linc was later marketed by Digital Equipment, a company all about the minicomputer that greatly increased computing accessibility. This company and the open academic culture that Clark was a huge part of led to greater accessibility software too. Would we have the world of Unix without the PDP series and the culture around it? Probably not!

Clark's role in computers was to be among the leaders of a sort of rebellion against monolithic and expensive computing, and his work led us the world of personal computing and open source software.

Indeed -- it's struck me recently how Wes was probably among the first (if not necessarily number one, if only because of ill-definedness) people to make computers smaller. Looking back at the sixty years since he began, it's been quite something.

I had the delightful opportunity to speak with Wes in May-June of 2015 via telephone on a number occasions.

I have been researching an image called the Digital Mona Lisa for many years, and in a round of searching last year, I came upon Wes's name in association with the creator of the Digital Mona Lisa, H. Philip Peterson, as they both worked on the TX-0 and TX-2 early computing projects. Wes was the project director as we all know.

I decided to give Wes a phone, (and keep in mind I didn't know him prior), and see if he could help me learn more about Mr. Peterson. Once we started talking in that first phone conversation it was like I had known him for years. A simply wonderful, engaging person that helped me learn more about Mr. Peterson but importantly I got to know about Wes and his vast interesting career, (being at a conference where Oppenheimer was part of the event, his early days at the Hanford nuclear facility, his contribution to the ARPA project and much more). Fascinating stuff from a fascinating person!!

I also found out that Mr. Peterson's first name was Harold, but Wes said he liked to be called Phil and that Mr. Peterson was born in Utah, among other items.

Wes asked me if my last name was of greek descent, which I am, and he proceeded to speak to me in greek. His wit and humor are two things I'll always remember about him, even from such a brief time we spent getting to know one another.

He certainly was a computing pioneer. I hope that his memory is eternal and that we look to past to learn from the careers of others like Wes that paved the way forward.

"Clark next led hardware design for the TX-2 with a focus on graphical interactivity. MIT doctoral student Ivan Sutherland realized that Clark's system enabled human-computer interaction concepts dreamed of 20 years prior by another MIT-trained engineering legend, Vannevar Bush. Sutherland used TX-2's light pen and screen to develop a graphical design application called Sketchpad."

Both the genesis of the GUI and object-oriented programming took place right there.

The systems named, TX-0 and TX-2, tweaked my recollection of items I'd seen while cataloging at CHM. There are a number of items related to the TX-0[1] including a picture[2] but also quite a number of its unique circuit modules[3], which were small plastic cylinders with 7-pin bases. Each cylinder held a couple of transistors and other components, approximating one gate per "bottle".

CHM also has a quantity of TX-2 items[4] such as this picture[5] and numerous of its circuit modules[6], which were narrow 2"x6.5" circuit boards.

[1] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/search/?s=tx-0

[2] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102630740

[3] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102733906

[4] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/search/?s=tx-2

[5] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102622491

[6] http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102677413

I tend to think that I know the important parts of this field history and yet I knew zero facts about that man which seems to be both technically and humanly inspiring.

TX-2 is still underrated for the level of innovation and impact it had.

RIP...he died same age as Marvin Minsky who died a month ago.

Quite. Minsky was actually advisor to my company, which is based in part on his notion of common sense computing. There is much to mourn recently.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact