Saying Goodbye: Notable 2013 Obituaries
You may have never heard of them, but these notables we lost in 2013 probably touched your life.
Published: December 30, 2013
Of mice and men
Jan. 30, 1925-July 2, 2013
Early computer pioneer invented the first computer mouse
In 1950, Douglas Engelbart had a good career: He was employed by the NACA Ames Laboratory, the precursor to NASA, where he worked on wind tunnels and other feats of engineering. He liked to hike and dance and by 1951, he met the love of his life. But he wasn’t entirely happy.
“I realized that I didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after,” he recalled. He decided he wasn’t going to settle for less than leading a life in which he could give something back — something big — to the world to make it a better place. So he set a lofty goal for himself: He wanted to focus his life on using computer technology to augment human intelligence so people could more efficiently solve important problems facing the planet.
Engelbart set out to obtain his Ph. D., then founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, which made it a mission to enhance the way people interacted with computers. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the research center unveiled some truly earth-shattering technologies, such as hyptertext (which is what the “h” in HTML stands for), video teleconferencing, and a complex filing system for the storage and retrieval of electronic documents. These are all things we take for granted now, in this age of clouds and apps and Facetime chats, but at the time, Engelbart’s work was considered groundbreaking. So groundbreaking, in fact, that when he unveiled some of the projects the research center was perfecting, demonstrated via a 90-minute live teleconference with his staff members in 1968, some thought Engelbart was trying to pull off a futuristic hoax and scoffed at him.
Engelbart eventually faded into obscurity as technology adanced, and, in the end, it’s not his work on the early technology that made the Internet and video chatting possible that Engelbart is best known for. It’s another humble bit of wired technology he created for which people remember him best: the computer mouse. The prototype didn’t look visionary — in fact, it was very primitive, constructed from a block of wood, some wiring and a red pushbutton on top — but it (and Engelbart) changed modern computing forever.
As for the name of the device, Engelbart never could remember why they decided to call it after a rodent: “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart said. “It started that way and we never changed it.”
Engelbart died after a battle with kidney failure and Alzheimer’s disease. –Erin Sullivan
Oct. 28, 1925 - April 13, 2013
Trailblazing special effects expert’s tricks horrified audiences
Perhaps only the most engaged fans of horror and special effects noticed when movie wizard Marcel Vercoutere died this April in Burbank, Calif. Born a few nights before Halloween in Detroit in 1925, Marcel Vercoutere seems to have grown up quickly. The son of immigrant parents (his father from France, his mother from Belgium), he tried enlisting in the Navy at 16 and wound up spending three years in the Pacific theater before he even finished high school. Back stateside, working as a welder and carpenter for movie studios after the war, he found a niche as a stunt coordinator, designing car crashes, firefights and other special effects. In early 1973, he was an accomplished veteran in the field, having devised special effects for such major films as Deliverance. That year, he faced his most ambitious assignment yet: The Exorcist.
The film shocked audiences with its story of a child possessed by the devil, but especially given Vercoutere’s surprising special effects, which involved levitation, demonic transformations, flying objects, streams of vomit, demonic voices, protruding tongues, bulging eyes and violent contortions, including a girl’s head rotating 360 degrees to the sound of cracking bones.
This work was done over several strenuous months at studios on West 54th Street in New York, where the production crew re-created the Georgetown bedroom for the exorcism scenes. Director William Friedkin kept reporters away from the shooting, demanding total secrecy. The film itself was behind schedule, way over budget, all while a streak of accidents and sicknesses on the set seemed evidence of the devil’s handiwork to some. The first set was unsatisfactory and had to be torn apart and replaced. The second one burned down in a freak fire in the middle of the night. An expensive air conditioning system to keep the set chilly for the exorcism scenes often broke down, caused water damage, and left actors with colds that delayed shooting.
Months behind schedule and $6 million over budget, the film was a smash hit when it opened 40 years ago. Though many of the mechanical effects of Vercoutere’s day are now done through computer-generated imagery, the film has aged well. That chilling moment where the mechanical head, crafted from casts of Linda Blair’s face, turns around, is somehow more chilling, more real, than any of today’s gaudy computer-generated effects. Certainly, Vercoutere’s masterwork is still deeply unsettling in an age of CGI and Imax 3-D. –Michael Jackman
The joy of cooking
April 15, 1924-Sept. 29, 2013
Italian cookbook writer introduced American kitchens to the practical art of simple cooking
Almost everyone who’s ever stood in front of a stove has been slipped a recipe for The Sauce. Novice cooks are always amazed at how just three ingredients — a can of tomatoes, an onion, a stick of butter — meld in a miraculous example of kitchen alchemy into the silkiest, most luxurious yet fresh pasta topping. The author, for American audiences at least, of this practical magic was Italian cook Marcella Hazan.