Dr James Martin: Technology guru and philanthropist who predicted the rise of the internet

His seminal work ‘The Wired Society’ was only one of more than a hundred books in his oeuvre

James Martin was a visionary writer and technologist whose book The Wired Society (1978), one of more than a hundred he wrote, predicted the arrival of the internet and of much other communications technology that is now commonplace. Later in life, having succeeded in solving business problems, he turned his focus towards finding solutions for the bigger issues facing the world today.

Martin was born in 1933 in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, the son of a clerical worker. He gained a scholarship to read physics at Keble College, Oxford. He joined International Business Machines (IBM) in the late 1950s at a time when computers still filled whole rooms and required large teams of people to manage them.

By 1970 he was part of an elite group of computer scientists who were turning science fiction into reality, or, as he called it, “a think tank and internal university with an eclectic hornet’s nest of a faculty, opposite the United Nations building in New York”. He said of that time: “In the age of Nixon, we went to cocktail parties in the UN and it was like going to a different planet. The UN delegates had no clue about what was happening in technology, and we computer gurus had no vision beyond our own world.”

In 1977 he took a year off from IBM, during which time he wrote The Wired Society and ran the James Martin World Seminar series for executives about the new technology, which he foresaw revolutionising the world of commerce. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and that year’s work earned him a million dollars, convincing him to go it alone. For the next 25 years he toured the world, lecturing to business people on current and future technologies.

His powers of prescience continued to bring him success. In 1996, just as the world wide web was taking off, Martin published his 100th book, Cybercorp: the New Business Revolution. He accurately predicted how this new technology would provide huge opportunities for business, yet cautioned that, “The more the basic mechanisms become automated, the greater the need for people to concentrate on uniquely human roles such as inventing new ways to delight the customers.”

In 2004 Martin made a gift of £60 million to Oxford University to fund a new school, the largest ever donation of its kind. The school has as its aims “to formulate new concepts, policies and technologies that will make the future a better place to be”. In an interview for this newspaper in 2011, in which he spoke of the need for research on the planet’s multifarious problems, he explained: “The idea behind the school was to say that all of these subjects needed research of very high quality, and on all of them there would have be to multidisciplinary research. Yet there was almost no multidisciplinary research going on in universities.” A further gift of £30 million came five years later.

Having spent much of his life writing and providing advice on communications technology and business, in recent years he had turned his writing focus towards the complex systems which make up our world. His most recent work, The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future (2006) tackles these wider issues, emphasising the four main topics of natural resources, the double-edged sword of technological advances, the possible risks of this coming century and our prospects for the future. The film of the book, narrated by Michael Douglas, was released simultaneously.

He states in the book’s preface: “The 21st century is an extraordinary time – a century of extremes. We can create much grander civilizations or we could trigger a new Dark Age. There are numerous ways we can steer future events so as to avoid the catastrophes that lurk in our path and to create opportunities for a better world.”

But this is not some doom-laden prediction of disaster. Martin emphasises that it is within our capabilities to tackle these challenges using technologies which, for the most part, already exist. As with many issues, such as hunger, it is the political will to bring lasting solutions that is absent.

He continues in the preface, as if to emphasise the importance of his Oxford legacy, “A revolutionary transition is ahead of us, and our children have a vital role to play in it; so, there is so much that we need to teach them about their future.” Martin had lived on Agar’s Island, Bermuda, since buying it in 1997, using the technologies whose creation he had foreseen to keep in touch with the wider world. His body was found in the water near Hamilton Harbour by a kayaker. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances.

Professor Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, said, “James Martin was a true visionary whose exceptional generosity established the Oxford Martin School, allowing researchers from across the disciplines to work together on the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing humanity. His impact will be felt for generations to come, as through the school he has enabled researchers to address the biggest questions of the 21st century.”

Professor Ian Goldin, Director of the school Martin helped create, added: “The Oxford Martin School embodies Jim’s concern for humanity, his creativity, his curiosity, and his optimism. Jim provided not only the founding vision, but was intimately involved with the School and our many programmes. We have lost a towering intellect, guiding visionary and a wonderful close friend.”

James Martin, writer, technology expert and philanthrophist: born Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire 19 October 1933; married three times (one daughter); died Bermuda 24 June 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants