Silicon Valley inventor Jay Last dies aged 92

Image copyright Microsoft Image caption Last developed an early computer word processor

Jay Last, who along with Bill Hewlett founded Silicon Valley and defined the information technology era, has died aged 92.

Last founded computer giant Hewlett-Packard with his fellow Stanford grad student Bill Hewlett in 1939, before moving on to start Intel.

As a passionate entrepreneur he transformed HP and Intel into two of the world’s most respected computer companies, and became a pioneer in the industry.

Last died in a Palo Alto hospital from respiratory failure.

Image copyright Yahoo Image caption Last in the silicon age

He is survived by two daughters, Sylvia and Amber.

According to Hewlett-Packard’s website, he started out as a technical writer at IBM when he was 16.

His academic career at Stanford led to him seeking work as a computer programmer.

In 1939, he designed software for a new word processor, named after his “spouse” Helen, which turned out to be an immediate hit in the market for business information.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Jay Last worked with Bill Hewlett on their first computer, called “Polly”

This was followed in 1944 by a new program called “Beowulf,” which described the power of electronic computing.

His first success had been unexpected – unlike the moneymaking computer programming he would one day master, Last had built it for no financial reward and some recognition.

He soon decided to develop the technology for an all-computer systems business and founded Hewlett-Packard.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption ‘I got to see the future and it was Silicon Valley’

Through Apple, IBM, Advanced Micro Devices and other tech companies, Hewlett-Packard would eventually become an HP subsidiary with $100bn (around £73bn) in annual revenue.

As the UK’s biggest computer company, HP dominates the British computer industry.

A number of the local and international companies are named after Jay and Bill’s little mountain hut in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“I got to see the future and it was Silicon Valley,” Last told BBC News during an interview in 2012.

Image copyright NBC Image caption Working with Al Gore on the Gore Institute

While the pair would become billionaires, the glory days of working on pioneering data systems in the late 1940s and early 1950s would be short-lived.

They received a challenge from the Israeli arm of Gossamer Interactive, which was working on a “millennium computer” that would link together major data processing systems.

In 1968, Hewlett and Last resigned from HP with an official announcement stating their mission to use their technology to aid a “thriving, democratic society” worldwide.

With the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv almost empty, the Hewlett-Packard labs – inspired by their early-70s film Dr Strangelove – became “two large dark buildings surrounded by two more dark buildings”, as an American journalist described them.

“You could imagine things were happening to them,” said Last’s daughter Amber.

Image copyright EPA Image caption Last was famous for his good humour

“There was a little communication signal from an obscure computer science project in Ohio.

“That was his whole mantra in those days, ‘there’s something happening, there’s something happening, there’s something happening’.”

In its 40th anniversary issue in 2013, the BBC’s the World website described how Hewlett and Last had seen intelligence of a new computing age emerging from their lab.

“Last and Hewlett had just assumed that nothing interesting would happen here. Hewlett, a science whiz, had been arguing that computer people were too humorless to have much of an impact on the outside world,” said the story.

“They were true to their conviction. Their first extraordinary computing breakthrough would be their last.”

How did he feel when he watched the internet take over the world?

“I had no idea of what it was. I never had anything to do with it. It was only in the 1970s that I was aware that it was all very important and taking place,” he told BBC News in 2012.

Image copyright EPA Image caption Last was one of the founders of chip maker Intel

He also said he was always inspired by certain types of evolution.

“We created the computers which allowed us to reach the point where we were able to communicate from one place to another. And in my life I’ve witnessed some of the changes in the world,” he said.

“And it will continue to happen; there will be changes of smaller proportions. And I’m happy that the change will not be in me.”

Leave a Comment