Wesley A. Clark, legendary computer engineer, dies at 88

Wes Clark, the computer engineer whose work largely influenced the design of DEC minicomputers, CAD software, graphical user interfaces, and the ARPAnet, died Monday.

Wesley A. Clark
Image: Bruce Damer / DigiBarn

Wesley Allison Clark, a revered computer engineer whose work from the 1950s through 1970s underpinned the revolutions in personal computing, computer graphics, and the internet, died Monday. He was 88.

Clark trained in physics at the University of California / Berkeley and joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory in 1952. His first computer job was to test the nascent memory technology for MIT's Whirlwind, which was a vacuum tube computer for the U.S. Navy. By 1955 he co-invented the lab's TX-0 project, which built one of the first transistor computers. This set the course for Clark to influence the shape of an industry.

Clark designed TX-0 so it could be operated by a single person. He put that logic into technical partner Ken Olsen's hardware, which was small for its time, resulting in what defined the new class of systems called minicomputers. Olsen two years later formed Digital Equipment Corp. to commercialize such hardware. Minis exponentially grew the world's number of computer installations because they were the size of desks instead of rooms, could be owned by midsize businesses instead of only leased by major corporations, and were easier for non-experts to learn compared to mainframes.

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. From this point, 21st-century users can trace a link to modern interfaces. Sketchpad influenced Doug Engelbart who invented the mouse and important graphical interface concepts; Engelbart influenced Alan Kay's teams at Xerox who advanced those concepts into micro-sized hardware; Kay and many colleagues went to work for Apple; and the circle is now closed, as this article may be read on a miniaturized interactive screen with your fingertip substituting for the light pen.

In the 1960s, Clark moved to St. Louis and worked at Washington University, where he and another technical partner, Charles Molnar, developed the macromodule project. At first glance their work could be read as merely a way to assemble LEGO-like parts into full computers — which they did, on machines such as the LINC which was initially conceived during Clark's MIT days. LINC advanced the ideas of truly personal computing even more than the MIT TX-class machines. But the LINC systems and macromodules also helped Clark imagine the ideas of modular computer networking. Clark in the early 1970s proposed using these concepts as the basis for Interface Message Processors. Engineering firm Bolt Beranak and Newman implemented Clark's idea on Honeywell minicomputers as the backbone of the ARPAnet, which became the internet.

Clark was equally famous in computer circles for his sense of humor. He was known to joke that he's "Not the general," referring to retired Army man Wesley Kanne Clark who unsuccessfully tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Clark autographed a LINC computer at the Boulder Creek, Calif.-based DigiBarn computer museum, along with other LINC team members, and captioned it: "For whom the gong perhaps chimes."

"With his work in the late 1950s and 1960s designing the TX-0, the TX-2, and the LINC, Wes Clark created the first experience of what we today call 'personal, interactive computing,'" DigiBarn owner Bruce Damer told TechRepublic. "The LINC is considered to be the first workstation, built by the user from a kit, then transported to a lab, office, and even used in a home."

"A truly great man who humbly with humor, wit, and genius changed our world (and who would rap your knuckles for saying so)," Damer added, in a separate email to Clark's family and associates. "So for Wes, we chime the gong tonight."

Clark's visions continue today. His son Douglas, professor emeritus of computer science at Princeton University, works on computer architecture and artificial intelligence. Clark is also survived by his wife Maxine, sons Brian and Peter, and daughter Alison.

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Evan Koblentz began covering enterprise IT during the dot-com boom times of the late 1990s. He recently published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers".

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