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Former Waitsfield resident James Martin, who has died at the age of 79, was one of the world's most prominent futurologists. Martin made a personal fortune from writing dozens of bestselling computer textbooks, giving executive seminars around the world and establishing a major IT consultancy. A growing pre-occupation with the future of humankind led him to make the largest ever individual benefaction to Oxford University, totaling $150 million, which resulted in the creation in 2005 of what became the Oxford Martin School, supporting interdisciplinary research into the problems and challenges we may face in years to come.
Martin was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, the only child in a working-class family. He won a scholarship to Ashby grammar school, where he was a brilliant but shy pupil. In 1950, he took up a scholarship at Keble College, Oxford. Although nominally a physics student, he was an eclectic scholar, sitting in on the lectures of Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin, which left a permanent impression on him. He was keen to be a writer, but his early efforts garnered only rejection slips.
After graduation, he undertook his national service in the army. He was commissioned as an engineering officer; this gave him some leadership skills and helped overcome his lack of confidence. In 1959, he joined IBM, which had only recently begun its UK computer operations, as a data processing analyst.
In the late 1950s, IBM was pioneering online computer systems, which processed business information in real time. Martin was sent to New York to work on the joint IBM-American Airlines Sabre airline reservations project, the first commercial real-time system. Martin returned to Britain to help transfer real-time technology to several European airlines and banks. He was given increasingly senior roles, culminating in the overall design of BOAC's worldwide airline reservations system.
In the mid-1960s, he made a change of career direction by transferring to IBM's Systems Research Institute, an in-house university and think tank in New York. He loved America, which he found optimistic and classless compared with England. He became IBM's leading expert on real-time computing and conducted seminars for staff and customers. At first his presentations were hesitant and ineffective, because of his innate shyness. However, he made a study of speaking techniques and quickly developed a commanding stage presence – helped by his 6-foot 5-inch frame and well-cut suits. Off-stage, however, he remained undemonstrative and quietly spoken all his life.
In 1965, at the invitation of the publisher Prentice Hall, he wrote the textbook Programming Real-Time Computer Systems. It sold well, and over the next 20 years he published more than 60 textbooks with the same publisher. He had an easy, accessible writing style and his books were peppered with engaging photographs and illustrations. Unusually, they appealed equally to practitioners and academics.
Meanwhile, Martin's interests were turning towards technology forecasting and he wrote The Computerized Society (1970) and The Wired Society (1977). These books were aimed at a general readership, rather than computer professionals. The Wired Society predicted – surprisingly accurately, as it turned out – that the world of 2000 would be girdled by global information networks used by everybody. The book was an international bestseller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Martin became decidedly wealthy. Although IBM did not generally permit its employees to profit from royalty payments, the company made an exception in his case.
To maintain his massive literary output, he was assisted by an editor, Charity Howland Anders, whom he married in 1971 and with whom he had his only child, a daughter, Corinthia. They later separated, and Martin married twice more.
After the success of The Wired Society, Martin left IBM to become a freelance author and lecturer. He moved to Bermuda, which suited his reclusive temperament, had tax advantages and was well-placed geographically to reach his international clientele. He conducted five-day executive seminars around the world, produced hundreds of videotaped lectures to complement his books, consulted for government and private organizations and wrote more books – eventually producing more than 100 titles including The Meaning of the 21st Century (2006). He remained in Bermuda for the rest of his life, buying the four-acre Agar's Island, where he built a large house in the colonial style, surrounded by guest houses, tennis and squash courts and a swimming pool.
In 1981, he established James Martin Associates in London to provide computer and consulting services. The company developed a successful and lucrative software methodology for large, complex systems and created a corporate identity based on "information engineering." Over the next 20 years, the company expanded, acquired several smaller firms and became one of the leading global IT services organizations. In 2006, it was renamed Headstrong, and Martin took on the role of chairman emeritus.
Away from the world of business, around 1990, Martin became increasingly concerned about the future of humankind in dealing with climate change, political and financial instability, nuclear proliferation and global poverty. By nature an optimist, he did not view any of these problems as insoluble – provided they were addressed.
His first response was to found the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In 2005, he negotiated with Oxford University to establish the 21st Century School, with initial funding of $100 million. Within the school, separate institutes were established to address different global problems such as population aging, medical epidemics and cyber security. In 2010, the school was renamed the Oxford Martin School and, with further benefactions from Martin, it currently supports some 300 scholars in 30 interdisciplinary research projects.
Martin is survived by his third wife, Lillian, and his daughter.