Bill Buxton: An Unsung Hero of the iPad

C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.
-Dennis Ritchie

For whatever reason, the lead singer of a band nearly always draws all the attention. But perhaps the drummer is the one writing all the songs, and surely she and the bassist are the ones laying the foundation of the song upon which the singer and guitarists will build.

The unfortunate closely-timed deaths of technological superstars Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs echo the lead singer phenomenon. Both men were geniuses, yet Dennis Ritchie’s pervasive influence through co-developing both C and Unix surely is of greater historical significance — in fact, Apple’s OS is a descendant of Unix, and the Objective-C language prevalent in iOS descends from C’s legacy. As a result, there was a bit of unrest in the computer science world when memorial to Jobs vastly out-shined that given to Ritchie.

There is nothing particularly surprising in this, it is simply that Jobs was the lead singer and Ritchie played the drums. But the stories of the drummers are as interesting of those of the lead singers even if they aren’t as often told.

From Drums to iPads

Another drummer that I learned about from NPR a week ago, is Bill Buxton, a musician turned computer scientist that was a pioneer of the multi-touch technology underlying the iPad. In 1975, he was trying to invent a drum synthesizer, but ended up facilitating computer interfaces:

I wasn’t trying to make a computer interface, I was just trying to make a drum. It turns out that if you want to make a hand drum, that you want to be able to tap it and at the same time have your palm drag against the ‘virtual skin’ of the drum so to speak to change the tone, that was all we were trying to do.

Buxton admits that at the time he had no expectation of changing the world; the only reason he was able to accomplish a multi-touch interface before anyone else was that he had no idea how difficult it was:

In many cases, people who come from outside the normal discipline [have an advantage]. I was trained in music and not in technology, and no one told us it was hard. It [multi-touch] seemed like a pretty obvious thing to do at the time.

But what wasn’t clear is [because of our outsider status] that we had different insights and just the right people around to make it happen.

And I love that part of things, when people just completely open up their imagination trying to do creative things, and have no business doing that kind of technological innovation, and they actually have insights that turn out many years after the fact to have had huge impact.

I like it in that sense that its just your imagination that’s driving it, and you’re not trying to be so deliberate, about trying to something really important. That usually just makes you uptight and strained.

It’s far better to find something you love doing and chase it down, and the rest will just fall out.

While it may be sexier to be a lead singer, the world will always depend on drummers to lay the beat.

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