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Thursday, March 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft's Needham dies from cancer

Seattle Times technology reporter

Roger Needham, a computer-science pioneer who founded and managed Microsoft's research division in Cambridge, England, died Friday (Feb. 28) of cancer.

Mr. Needham, 68, was known for his thoughtful speaking style, dry sense of humor and witty wordplay that gave even the most arcane computer-science lectures some sparkle.

"Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer's daughter," he sometimes said about his knack for hitting on the right idea.

Mr. Needham's colleagues recently gathered to celebrate his accomplishments and present him with a book written in his honor by dozens of computer scientists.

Rick Rashid, a senior vice president overseeing Microsoft's research divisions, said in the forward to the book that he was taken aback the first time he heard Mr. Needham lecture.

"When Roger spoke, I found myself hanging on each word wondering with great anticipation what would come next," he wrote. "The wait was usually worthwhile."

Mr. Needham's work was at the forefront of early computer research. In the 1960s, he helped build one of the earliest computer systems to use cache memory and perform full backups. He was also involved in the construction of the Cambridge Ring, one of the first local area network systems.

At Microsoft, Mr. Needham had an unobtrusive style and didn't interfere with the work of other researchers, said Tony Hoare, a senior researcher at the laboratory who had known him for 25 years.

"He set that tone in which individual scientists really do their best work," he said.

Mr. Needham married Karen Spärck Jones in 1958, and the pair built a house together while studying for their doctorate degrees. He loved sailing on his 100-year-old cutter.

Andrew Herbert, an assistant to Mr. Needham, will become the new managing director of Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

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