April 20, 2024

Tom West Dies at 71; Was the Computer Engineer Incarnate

His family said Mr. West was found in his kitchen and might have suffered a heart attack or stroke.

Mr. West and his team of engineers at the Data General Corporation, in Westborough, Mass., developed a 32-bit microcomputer that briefly led the field of digital processing in the early 1980s, when the computer industry was poised between the eras of the mainframe and the PC.

Mr. Kidder’s book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, chronicled the team’s punishing, almost round-the-clock race to engineer a state-of-the-art microcomputer, the Eclipse MV/8000, to reach the market ahead of their company’s competitors.

In the book, Mr. West emerged as a driven, brilliant, aloof company man — equally adroit at solving the technical and bureaucratic problems facing the project — who at the same time harbored the free spirit of the self-taught computer wiz that he was.

His daughter Jessamyn West said he was driven “to understand everything.”

“He knew a million things — it didn’t matter: worms, plumbing, literature. He could give you a discourse. It seemed like he could never rest until he had a sense of control over the things around him.”

When Mr. Kidder’s book was published in 1981, the intensely private Mr. West became briefly famous. He was inundated with requests for interviews and speaking appearances, some of which he agreed to do at the request of his employers, who tried to leverage the book’s popularity to Data General’s advantage in its constant marketing wars.

But Mr. West never grew comfortable with fame. “It offends me when people think they know me because of the book,” he said in a 2000 interview with Wired magazine.

The complexity of his nature was a recurring theme in Mr. Kidder’s book, which paints Mr. West as alternately inscrutable, brutally frank, unexpectedly kind and seemingly capable of being two people at the same time.

“Some nights he would go away from Eagle,” Mr. Kidder wrote, referring to the in-house code name of the project, “and play music with friends and acquaintances, sometimes all night long, and then, fingers raw from his guitar strings, he would drive right into work and become once again the tough, grim-looking manager. One evening that winter I said to him that I didn’t think it was really possible to be a businessman and a dropout all at once. West said, ‘But I do it.’ ”

Joseph Thomas West III was born in Bronxville, N.Y., on Nov. 22, 1939, the son of an American Telephone and Telegraph executive who moved the family often. Mr. West attended four different high schools before enrolling at Amherst College, where both his father and grandfather had received their degrees. Because of low grades, however, the college asked him to take some time off. He spent a year playing folk music and working part time at the Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, where he first became interested in computers, before returning and finishing his studies with a major in physics.

Mr. West’s two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Jessamyn, of Randolph, Vt., he is survived by another daughter, Katherine West, of Stow, Mass., and a sister, Terry West, of Santa Fe, N.M.

Mr. West joined Data General in the mid-1970s, at a time when competition for new products in the computer industry was increasingly driven by the threat of obsolescence.

“My father and the men of his generation were really trying to get ahead of a rolling wave,” Mr. West’s daughter Katherine said. “They had to figure out where things were going, and my dad was really good at anticipating that, seeing where things were going to be.” While most of his colleagues scattered to other high-tech companies, Mr. West remained at Data General until his retirement in 1998 — playing against type to some degree from the Tom West portrayed in Mr. Kidder’s book, who complained about his bosses frequently and routinely threatened to quit.

In the 2000 Wired interview, he said he stayed because he liked being a big fish in a small pond.

His daughter Jessamyn offered another perspective: “My dad loved routine. He rolled his sleeves up exactly the same way every morning. He went to work at exactly the same time every day. It was what gave him the freedom to think.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=dd96893acbfdf6999bfb5d179f07bc35

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