February 26, 2021

Daniel D. McCracken Dies at 81; Wrote Best-Sellers on Using Computers

The cause was cancer, his wife, Helen Blumenthal, said.

Mr. McCracken wrote his first book, “Digital Computer Programming,” in 1957. At the time, computers were expensive, hulking machines that were difficult to program. Getting computers to do calculations was an art mastered by only an elite community of professionals, who understood the inner workings of the big machines.

But new tools — programming languages — were being developed that would allow many more people to use computers, including engineers and business people. The first such programming language was Fortran, introduced in 1957. Mr. McCracken’s book “A Guide to Fortran Programming,” published in 1961, was his first big winner, selling 300,000 copies.

For years, Mr. McCracken was the Stephen King of how-to programming books. His series on Fortran and Cobol, a computer language designed for use in business, were standards in the field. Mr. McCracken was the author or co-author of 25 books that sold more than 1.6 million copies and were translated into 15 languages.

In the early days, computer professionals typically fell into one of two camps — scientists or craftsmen. The scientists sought breakthroughs in hardware and software research, and pursued ambitious long-range goals, like artificial intelligence. The craftsmen wanted to use computers to work more efficiently in corporations and government agencies.

“Dan McCracken was most interested in helping ordinary practitioners improve their computing skills,” said Peter J. Denning, chairman of the computer science department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

But his books are not like the how-to computer books of more recent years written for consumers. His have been used as programming textbooks in universities around the world and as reference bibles by practicing professionals.

Mr. McCracken was born on July 23, 1930, in Hughesville, Mont., where his father, Albert Ray McCracken, was a mining engineer at the time. But the mine closed during the Depression, and the family moved back to Washington State, where Mr. McCracken’s father and mother, Blanche, a school teacher, had relatives.

Mr. McCracken, the youngest of six children, grew up mostly in Ellensburg, Wash., and graduated from Central Washington University with degrees in mathematics and chemistry.

In 1951, he went to work for General Electric, beginning in the chemical engineering department, then transferring to its computer center. He spent seven years at G.E. and also did graduate work at the New York University Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

While at G.E., Mr. McCracken began to write about computer programming, first for an in-house company publication, and later for publications like Datamation and Scientific American.

“I had an urge to write,” Mr. McCracken said in an interview in 2008 with the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, which conducts historical research on computing. “When I saw something that I thought might be publishable, I wrote something. I just wanted to spread the word about good stuff.”

In 1959, Mr. McCracken founded a computer consulting firm, and worked for years with corporate and government clients while writing his books.

In 1981, he joined the computer science department of the City College of New York, where he taught until his death. “He was always current, always keeping up,” said Douglas R. Troeger, chairman of the computer science department.

Mr. McCracken, he said, was typically the first professor to include new technologies in his course, like the Java programming language, introduced in 1995. Last spring, Mr. McCracken had students do projects in Android, a smartphone operating system developed by Google.

“It was the latest hot thing, so Dan was teaching it,” Mr. Troeger said.

Mr. McCracken’s first marriage, to Evelyn Edwards, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1980, as well as seven children from his previous marriage: his sons Charles, of Greenfield, Mass., and Thomas, of Grand Junction, Colo., and his daughters Judith Ann Carlin and Virginia Ruth Ballou, both of Hailey, Idaho, Cynthia Jeanne Baldwin, of Shoshone, Idaho, Rachel Elizabeth Bahrenfuss of Bellevue, Idaho, and Aliza Blanche McCracken, of Bakersfield, Calif. He is also survived by a stepson, Michael Shalom Cohen, of Jersey City.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3b16dd62690334981d02703600e8ddfd

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