1. 20

We all have our CS heroes. Perhaps it’s Linus Torvalds or Bill Gates or a personal favorite of mine, Edsger Dijkstra. There is one genius of the history of computing that doesn’t have much fame or notoriety, and I couldn’t even find his name on a reddit search. This man created the concepts behind the idea of our modern computers. Running a graphical operating system on a limited, simplifed, chipset and mostly just the CPU, rather than having to use specialized hardware. Now he, apparently, lives a sad and lonely life in California, occasionally making his only human contact on the way to Whole Foods to pick up some groceries.

I am talking about Burrell Smith, the Apple engineer who designed the motherboard for the first Macintosh and found ways to shoe-horn upgrades into older computers in ways no one ever thought possible.


You can find some amazing stories about his genius and unique personality here: http://www.folklore.org/ProjectView.py?characters=Burrell%20Smith

What has become of him today? http://tradertim.blogspot.com/2007/07/lonesome-tale-of-burrell-smith.html

According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs there is a chance Burrell suffered from schizophrenia during the 1990s… I don’t know. I just feel sad reading about what has become of him and wish we could tell him somehow that there are geeks out there that appreciate the work that he has done and his unparalleled creativity in the field of hardware engineering.


  2. 16

    I would not assume, even if the schizophrenia suggestion is true, that he’s unhappy. If you have the type of issues that make avoiding in-person human contact necessary, it can be a huge relief to be at a point in life where it’s actually possible.

    At any rate, it feels weird to talk about a living person that way. I agree that his work is a big deal and has touched many people, and I think that’s the part that’s any of my business.

    1. 2

      Like @irene, @tujv and @LibertarianLlama say - most people are pretty private and enjoy that, reserving interactions for friends and family.

      I even think that the people who are actually happiest with their work have no need for public adulation, except the normal acknowledgement and appreciation that comes from colleagues. People who seek the spotlight may be missing some satisfaction from the actual work.

    2. 11

      According to this Wired interview with Andy Hertzfeld from 2004, he made a bunch of money from an IPO in the 90s and is now retired. He just sounds like a private person.

      1. 6

        Is there a reason to believe that this man wants to not be alone or to have his exploits sung?

        Shouldn’t you save your pity for somebody who wants it?

        1. 4

          There is a way to tell him. Just send him an email!

            1. 3

              Hehe. I wonder what that says about the quality of Linux, as I’ve never seen Linus with facial hair… Oh, actually, I’ve never seen Theo with facial hair either, so maybe there are a few exceptions to the rule ;)

            2. 4

              Interesting bit of history, but I think there’s a hint of judgement in the Tim Knight article. Just because Burrell Smith has a long beard and shuffles to the grocery store that doesn’t mean we can assume anything about his lifestyle or that he’s “alone”.