Software

RIP John Walker, software and hardware hacker extraordinaire

Creator of the Hacker Diet and sponsor of pre-Web hypermedia system Xanadu


Obit Polymath, pioneering developer of software and hardware, a prolific writer, and true old-school hacker John Walker has passed away.

His death was announced in a brief personal obituary on SCANALYST, a discussion forum hosted on Walker's own remarkably broad and fascinating website, Fourmilab. Its name is a playful take on Fermilab, the US physics laboratory, and fourmi, the French for "ant."

To those of us in the PC industry, John Walker is probably most known as the founder of Autodesk, the company which in 1982 took Computer-Aided Design (CAD) out of the world of expensive minicomputers and brought it to mass-market microcomputers in the form of AutoCAD, running on the then-new IBM PC. AutoCAD grew out of an earlier program by Michael Riddle called INTERACT CAD. Among other machines, INTERACT ran on the computers sold by Walker's earlier company, Marinchip Systems. Walker stepped down as president of AutoDesk in 1986, but in a typically non-conformist move, he continued to work for the company he started as a programmer.

Before Marinchip, Walker achieved some notoriety as the author of ANIMAL, a self-replicating computer game which has the dubious honor of being considered as one of the first proto-viruses, as he described in an essay called the Animal Episode.

Just a year after it was founded, AutoDesk acquired Project Xanadu, the pre-WorldWideWeb distributed hyper-media system devised by Ted Nelson, the writer, researcher and "systems humanist" who coined the word hypertext. AutoDesk sponsored the development of Xanadu for about a decade. In 1988, Walker's description was almost grandiloquent:

In 1964, Xanadu was a dream in a single mind. In 1980, it was the shared goal of a small group of brilliant technologists. By 1989, it will be a product. And by 1995 it will begin to change the world.

It didn't happen. In 1991, Walker expressed concerns about the company's direction in a widely-circulated memo called the Final Days. AutoDesk sold Xanadu off the following year, and Walker left the company two years later. This freed him to pursue his wide-ranging and diverse interests.

He proceeded to write his own history of AutoDesk, entitled the Autodesk File, his history of his most famous company. Its subtitle, Bits of History, Words of Experience is a nod to the classic textbook Smalltalk-80: Bits of History, Words of Advice, but in fact AutoCAD's customisation is driven by the other "language of the gods": a dialect of XLisp called AutoLisp, as the AutoDesk File explains. Such is the influence of AutoLisp that many other CAD programs include forms of it, including BricsCAD, DraftSight, and IntelliCAD and its dozen-plus derivatives.

Walker wrote several other books, some of which won him other audiences. One of these was his free e-book the Hacker's Diet, humorously if inaccurately subtitled How to lose weight and hair through stress and poor nutrition. He also wrote a number of original science fiction short stories, his guide to reversing myopia, and many other fields: astronomy, chemistry, consciousness studies, diet and nutrition, mathematics, nanotechnology, physics and more. Some are highly controversial, such as his "one strike and you're out" policy on poorly written English, and his disdain for large governments, including the European Union.

Former head of the Windows division at Microsoft, Steven Sinofsky, who posted a lengthy tribute to Walker on Twitter, called Fourmilab a "treasure trove," with which we heartily agree.

John Walker was born in Maryland in 1949, and died February 2, 2024. He leaves his wife of 51 years Roxie, and his brother Bill. ®

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