Wirt Atmar, founder of 3000 software firm AICS Research and an inventive leader of the 3000 community since the computer's inception, died yesterday at age 63. He leaves behind his wife and business partner Valerie, a son Mark, millions of lines of programs and Internet postings, and a legacy of creation — one that flowed from a clear-eyed view of a world where he helped computer science emerge and flourish.
Atmar died of a heart attack in his hometown in Las Cruces, NM early on Feb. 5. It was a place where he invited everyone to enjoy a free enchilada dinner when they visited him. He quipped once that it was interesting to live in a state where the omnipresent question was about enchildala sauce: "Green or red?" He gravitated to new ideas and concepts and products quickly. Less than a month after Apple introduced the iPhone, he bought and tested one, praising its promise even as he exposed its failures, from the unripened state of its software to the signal unavailability.
It will work well if you go stand in the street, however. If I go outside and stand under one specific tree, I can talk to anyone I want. In only one week, I have felt on multiple occasions just heaving the phone as far as I could throw it -- if it weren’t so damnably expensive. The iPhone currently resembles the most beautiful cruise liner you’ve ever seen. It’s only that they haven’t yet installed the bed or the toilet in your stateroom, and you have to go outside to use the “facilities,” and that’s irritating even if the rest of the ship is beautiful. But can you certainly see the promise of what it could become.
The postings were classic Wirt: Funny and insightful, cut precise with honesty, and complete in needed details. A cruise through his postings on the 3000 newsgroup stands as an extraordinary epitaph of his passions, from space exploration to environmental science to politics to evolution and so much more. He was a mensch and a brilliant polymath, an extraordinary combination in any human.
Less than 24 hours before he died, Wirt posted an lively report on migration performance gains he recorded after moving an MPE/iX program to faster hardware running Linux. It was an factual observation only Atmar could have presented, an example of the scientific practice the community loses with his passing.
One of the 3000 founders who was best known by his first name, Wirt was respected in the community for his honest and pragmatic vision of the 3000's history and potential, expressed in his countless e-mails and postings to the 3000 newsgroup. But alongside that calculating drive he carried an ardor for the platform. His was essential in sparking HP's inclusion of SQL support in IMAGE, a feature so integrated that HP renamed the database IMAGE/SQL. In 1996 Wirt led an inspired publicity effort that brimmed with a passion for possibility, conceiving and executing The World's Largest Poster Project (shown above) with the help of hundreds of volunteers on a Southern California football field. He quipped that after printing the hundreds of four-foot rolls of paper needed for the poster, loading them into a van for the trip to California represented "the summer corporate fitness program for AICS Research."
Wirt's software company survives and perseveres, reports his widow Valerie, who's been AICS general manager since the company's inception, a start in a trailer with New Mexico State graduate students doing the coding in the early 1970s. AICS has evolved across more than three decades, its success and invention maturing and expanding around the HP 3000 user, ones both homesteading and migrating. Evolution has been essential to the company as well as its founder. Wirt lived a life that sprang from his career as an evolutionary biologist and research associate at the Center for Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
Wirt was no stranger to the realities of death, having worked for a time as a scientist calculating the fatalities from various throw weights of nuclear attacks. He saw the 3000's treatment by HP in 2001 as a death of the system, a step he was the first to publicize before HP had released the news, one he abhorred but accepted with an outsized effort to evolve onto a new platform for his company's software. In the process of that evolution AICS gave away one of the most substantial gifts the 3000 community has ever received in QCTerm, terminal emulation software which is still free to anyone who downloads the program.
As news of Wirt's death spread through the community over the past day, tributes and condolences poured in through message on the 3000 newsgroup he enriched with his writing. Words connected Wirt to the life of the community, since he seldom traveled to 3000 user events. His travels were reserved for his pursuits in science. The tone of the online tributes showed that he touched the members with a certainty of opinion white-hot in its passion.