Skip to content ↓

Alan Kotok, 64, created joystick

Alan Kotok
Alan Kotok
Photo / Ralph R. Swick

Computer pioneer Alan Kotok, an MIT alumnus who helped create both the first video game and the gaming joystick, died of a heart attack in his home in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday, May 26. A native of Philadelphia, he was 64.

Kotok (S.B. 1962) entered MIT at age 16 and became swiftly involved in developing chess-playing computer programs, designing new systems for MIT's Tech Model Railroad and, with a group of friends, coming up with their original video game, Spacewar.

Tim Berners-Lee, founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is housed in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, described Kotok as "one of the early wise men of computer science."

The unflappable Kotok was "not only technically adept well beyond the norm, but also possessed a childlike delight in all things ingenious or intriguing. Wit, wisdom and sheer human warmth defined him, yet he commanded total respect. He would humbly take on anything which simply needed doing," Berners-Lee said.

Kotok had been W3C associate chairman since 1997. In highlighting Kotok's many contributions to the field that literally grew up with him, Berners-Lee pointed to Kotok's important programs for early Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and IBM computers, including the well-known Kotok-McCarthy chess program at MIT, which became Kotok's S.B. thesis.

Kotok spent 34 years with DEC in numerous leadership roles, retiring in 1996. He served as technical director for product strategy and development groups in telecommunications, storage and Internet.

While at DEC, he was chief architect of the PDP-10 family of computers and a logic designer for the early DEC PDP-6 computer. Later, he became chief architect on the influential DECsystem-10 timesharing computer system and a senior consultant to Digital's Alta Vista project, an early Internet search engine.

Gordon Bell, senior researcher in Microsoft's Media Presence Research Group, worked with Kotok at DEC in the 1960s. Kotok was "calm, constant and unflappable with a wonderful sense of humor. He loved telephony and probably knew more about it than anyone in the company. This was invaluable to us as communication is the mainstay of computing today."

Kotok also provided leadership as a member of the Corporate Strategy Group, which advocated early adoption and integration of Internet and Web-based technologies.

Kotok, whose daughter Leah affectionately called him "King Nerd," had a lifelong interest in all things mechanical.

His love of trains, which surged into passion at MIT, arose in childhood: His father owned a New Jersey hardware store that sold toy trains at Christmas, and Kotok set up the annual train displays.

As for electronics, a family legend tells how Kotok, then 5, stuck a metal screwdriver into an electric outlet and was tossed across a room. Kotok himself recalled this with characteristic understatement -- "I was always interested in electrical engineering!" -- in a 2004 interview.

In the same interview, Kotok described his 1956 encounter with a "giant thinking machine" on a school field trip to the Mobil Research Lab in New Jersey as the "spark that triggered me. We went through a programming exercise, punched up the cards, put them into the machine and the printer clank-clanked and we got the answers. I said, 'Computers! This is it!'"

Kotok married the former Judith McCoy in 1977; she died in 2005.

Kotok is survived by two daughters, Leah Beth Kotok of Ashburnham, Mass. and Frederica Beck of Prescott, Ariz.; a son and daughter-in-law, Daryl and Shelly Beck of Greenfield, Mass.; and two grandsons.

The funeral was private. A memorial service is being planned for the fall.

Donations in Kotok's memory may be made to the Westfield Center for Early Keyboard Studies, P.O. Box 505, Orcas, WA 98280; the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View, CA 94043; or the Judith Kotok Memorial Scholarship, c/o the Longy School of Music, One Follen St., Cambridge, MA 02138.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 14, 2006 (download PDF).

Related Topics

More MIT News