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The Ripples of Inspiration

On July 7th, the New York Times ran a major obituary in the Science section, entitled William R. Bennet, 78, Pioneer in Gas Lasers, Dies. The lengthly article noted that he was the physicist and inventor who in the 1960s invented the HeNe gas laser “that revolutionized surgery and made possible compact-disc players and grocery-store scanners”. This was certainly true, and was what he was best known for. But as revolutionary and as important as the laser was, a little squib buried at the end of the article hints at a potentially even more important contribution to society:

“In the 1970s, Dr. Bennett introduced a popular undergraduate course for humanities and social-science students at Yale, intended to show the problem-solving promise of nascent computers. A colleague, Werner P. Wolf, a professor emeritus of engineering and applied science at Yale, said the course proved to be both prescient and persuasive, and “made the whole concept of computers exciting.”

It so happens that I was one of those social-science students who took Professor Bennett’s course, in 1976. Our textbook, which he had written himself, introduced us to the BASIC language, and painted a picture of all sorts of uses for this amazing new technology. Now, I had never been a science jock in high school, in fact I had never touched a computer before that class. But inspired by the obvious passion and vision of this world famous inventor, I began to see the extent of the change that these then-unwieldy devices might engender.

07bennett.190.jpgI never took another computer course in college and graduated with a degree in Urban Planning, but as soon as I got out, almost the first thing I did was to buy an Apple II computer (with a cassette tape drive, no less!) and start writing a program to balance my checkbook. And then one to catalog my book collection. And then others for both personal and professional use (one of which actually got a full page write-up in InfoWorld in 1983).

Now, some 30 years later, my coding skills are so rusty as to be completely useless in this day of Java and Objective C, but the vision, enthusiasm and inspiration of William Ralph Bennett live on, and at least in my case was the first step in a lifelong career that has led to startup investments in over five dozen entrepreneurial tech companies. Wherever he is, I hope Professor Bennett is looking down with some degree of satisfaction.

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