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The $100 man: Why philanthropist James Martin gave away his fortune

From an aircraft window at night, Bermuda emerges from the dark void of the North Atlantic as lonely points of light. Once on the ground, a taxi from the airport takes me from one end of the island to the other. Along the way, the driver stops to check directions at a crossroads where one of the houses is named "Xanadu", conjuring images of the palatial estate of Citizen Kane.

Eventually, we run out of road and drive through a pair of stone pillars and on to a dirt track where I'm told to wait by a wooden jetty for my contact. As I pay the driver, who seems quite lost in this secretive corner of Bermuda, a figure on the jetty by the water flashes a light from a torch and comes towards me. He introduces himself as Paul the gardener, and he's here to show me to the boat that will take me to Agar's Island, the private realm of James Martin, the mysterious philanthropist.

Since 2005, Martin has donated $150m to the University of Oxford to set up a school to study the problems of the 21st century. Martin is now the single biggest private donor in Oxford's 900-year history, more generous even than Sir Thomas Bodley, the diplomat, scholar and founder in 1598 of the Bodleian Library. In fact, Martin's is the largest single gift to any university in Britain. Yet few people would recognise his name, let alone his face.

After reading a biography of Martin, The Change Agent by Andrew Crofts, I became intrigued by the shadowy figure who gives his name to the Oxford Martin School. Who was this person who was spending his fortune on funding some of the best minds in the world to tackle problems ranging from climate change and biodiversity, to economic modelling and the cities of the future?

Crofts agreed to arrange an interview for me. I had suggested a meeting with the peripatetic multi-millionaire when he was next in Britain, but Martin, it turned out, wanted me to meet him at home in Bermuda.

James Martin is a big, rangy man with a surprisingly shy demeanour for someone who is used to commanding audiences of high-powered business executives who flock to his lectures. It is clear from the first moment we meet, onboard the launch that would ferry me the final leg to his island, that he is a man who doesn't do small talk.

Born in Ashby-de-la-Zouche, Leicestershire, in 1933, he was the only child of a clerical worker and his wife. He had a modest upbringing but was recognised for being unusually intelligent by the headmaster of the local grammar school. He got a scholarship to Oxford in the 1950s at the time when Isaiah Berlin, CS Lewis and Bertrand Russell were still lecturing at the university.

From there, after National Service, his first proper job was with IBM, the giant American computer company. At that time, all computers were mainframes the size of a small planet, and only the richest companies could afford them. Computers were reserved for large organisations, and would remain so right through to the early 1980s, when the first home computers first appeared.

In the 1960s, Martin joined IBM's in-house "university", the Systems Research Institute in New York and started to make a name for himself as an expert in complex systems. He was also something of a futurologist, with a vision that extended beyond the next balance sheet. His great obsession then was the possibility of linking computers together via a telecommunications network – something viewed as almost science fiction in those pre-internet days.

In 1977, when Martin was in his mid-forties, he took a year's sabbatical from IBM, and travelled the world lecturing business executives on the coming computer revolution. He discovered he could make a lot of money doing so. In the first year, he made a million dollars, more than he would ever make working as a salaried employee. He decided to leave IBM and set up his own company. Since then, Martin has amassed a fortune from running five-day seminars, each attended by hundreds of top executives paying several thousand dollars a head.

He has also written more than 100 books, many of them best-selling textbooks that have been on reading lists for 20 or 30 years. One of them, The Wired Society, published in 1978, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has also produced hundreds of educational videos which he says have probably made him into the single biggest seller of educational videos in history.

But could this really generate the sort of wealth that has allowed him to give away $150m to Oxford, as well as fund an exotic lifestyle on a private island?

We land on agar's Island by an old 19th-century dock house, which is the only thing lit up in the darkness of the Bermudan night. There is an eerie quality to the island's solitude. Armed with a torch, Martin leads the way in silence up the pathway to his large, colonial-style house on a solitary hill. Lillian, his New York-born wife, greets us with a lamb stew and we sit down to dinner around a circular glass table unnervingly suspended from the ceiling. Martin becomes animated in a conversation about student protests in Britain – he says he'd be one of them if he was 18 – and I begin to see the legendary spark that can light up an auditorium.

He must have anticipated the question about where his money came from because he raises the issue himself – just as he must have done when John Hood, the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, came to stay on his island to discuss the funding of the new school. "Oxford needed to know too," Martin says. Apart from a relatively small amount of money earnt from software licences, he insists the bulk of his wealth comes from his seminars, books and videos. "The books sold on the back of the seminars, the videos on the back of the books and so on."

As I look through the suspended glass table I notice that we are sitting on glass chairs that are standing on a circular glass floor. We seem to be floating in mid-air. Below the floor is a deep shaft surrounded by circular brickwork, like a huge well sunk into the ground.

"It's an old lime kiln," Martin explains. "We didn't really know what to do with it when we discovered it so we decided to make it into a feature."

Agar's Island is named after Sir Anthony Agar, the English investor who bought the island in 1613 without ever having seen it or having any intention of going there. In the 19th century, it became a secretive military outpost of the British, and many of the buildings from the time still exist. Eight small stone quarries were chiselled out of the volcanic rock to make the square building stones of the dock house, barracks and stone latrines used by the resident soldiers and their convict labourers.

Martin bought the island in 1997, also with little idea, he says, of what was there. The entire island was covered with an Australian shrub called Casuarina that had been planted by the island's previous owners as a wind break against hurricanes. It took four Portuguese men with machetes to hack a path through the dense undergrowth.

Martin had lived on Bermuda for many years. It was geographically handy for a man who spent his time travelling around the globe, and it must also have had an advantageous tax climate to match the pleasant, sub-tropical weather. Towards the end of the 1990s, he wanted something a little more remote.

His only daughter, by his late first wife, was by then grown up with a life in Washington and Martin threw himself into the challenge of creating his personal world.

The building work took four years to finish, and soaked up several million dollars. The house has a panoramic view of Bermuda and its islands to the east, and to the west, across the Great Sound, you can see Somerset Island in the distance. Beyond lies the North Atlantic, which in this part of the world surrounds the mysterious Sargasso Sea – the "sea without shores" that is enclosed only by swirling ocean currents.

"People asked if I were becoming a recluse," Martin wrote soon after buying the island. "In reality, life on the island couldn't have been less recluse-like." Martin, it seems, is never short of visitors.

In the bedroom where I'm to stay the night, he leaves a selection of his books and, the next morning I start to read one, Future Developments in Telecommunications, published in 1977. I knew that Martin had a reputation for making accurate predictions in technology. The Wired Society had foreseen the internet two decades before it actually happened. This book was similarly uncanny.

Under the heading "A future scenario", a preamble warns that what follows is "not a forecast but a statement of what is likely to be possible". In the late 1980s, Martin writes, many people will work from home, but "curiously the companies most reluctant to allow their employees to work at home are the giant, conservative computer and telephone companies which make it possible".

In the early 1990s, he predicts, executives will have wall-mounted screens facing their desks and telephone transmissions around the world by satellites will be cheap and routine. Most shopping will be done from home computer screens, printed newspapers will cease production in the US and at least one cable TV news channel will bring 24-hour news. Not bad, I thought.

Later that decade, Martin foresees a new form of hand-held communication device. "Most people now carry a portable radio transceiver with a telephone keyboard," he says. "Computerised video dating gains popularity with customers examining computer-selective prospective dates on their home screens."

That was written a quarter of a century before the iPhone and Facebook. But not everything was so spot-on. "Fashionable young ladies wear wrist watches made in orbit," he says. The Moon will be mined for its minerals – well, not yet. But then he also says that "roving laboratory modules" will be exploring the planets and moons of the Solar System – and quite right, they are.

Martin could have taken any number of paths, given his fortune and talents. So why, I ask him later that morning, did he decide to spend $150m on setting up an institution for studying the problems of the 21st century? He says that during his extensive travelling he had seen remarkable changes in the world – not all for the good. "I was getting more and more concerned about the problems of the planet," he explains. He began to make a mental list of all the subjects that needed in-depth study.

"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."

Martin, who describes himself as "apolitical", pledged an initial gift of $100m to Oxford in 2005 to establish the school. But last year he made a further pledge of around $50m in matching funds – for every $1m pledged by another donor, he would match it with the same amount. Big names have come out to play, including George Soros and Bill Gates.

The school now has 30 "institutes", composed of teams of about eight academics, each led by a professor. The subject of each institute can be divided into four broad categories: health and medicine, energy and environment, technology and society and ethics and governance. A key feature of the school is the multidisciplinary nature of its activities and each institute head is encouraged to find out about what other institutes are doing in order to stimulate the cross-fertilisation of ideas and techniques.

Although the school's secretariat is housed in a building in central Oxford, opposite the Sheldonian Theatre, the researchers themselves are distributed throughout the university. The overriding stipulation is that their work should have direct, practical bearing on the problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

Although he had been a physics undergraduate at Oxford in the 1950s, Martin says he did not choose the university for this reason alone. "I tried talking to Harvard, Yale and Stanford, but I think if it was an American university it would have dissolved into almost all technology, and most of the subjects have a very strong effect on people and society involving such things as philosophy and medicine.

"Oxford is one of those places where you can pull all those things together. In most universities, the scientists don't talk to the philosophers, and so on, but in Oxford they do. In many of the subjects you rapidly run into arguments about whether it is ethical, and how it relates to ethics. You run into arguments about it being fine in theory, but how do you turn it into practical reality, which involves politics?"

Martin's sizeable donation has enabled him to have the school named after him – the Oxford Martin School – and the right to use the university's logo in the school's literature. His name will survive with his legacy, possibly in perpetuity, just as it has with Sir Thomas Bodley, who created Oxford's Benefactor's Book in 1602 to record the names of the university's richest donors for wider dissemination – and posterity. He says his daughter Corinthia is "OK" about the bulk of his fortune being spent in this way.

He pinpoints the moment at which he knew he wanted to fund such a project to a lecture he gave 10 years ago. It was the morning following 9/11 and he was in Hong Kong, speaking before several thousand business executives at an Asian computer conference. He had spent the night re-writing his script and changing his slideshow to take into account the awful events in New York. After his revised talk, he asked for questions from the stunned audience.

No one put their hand up. He asked again, adding that he would refuse to leave the auditorium until someone asked him a question. Finally, an audience member asked rather timidly: "IBM has just introduced its first 64-bit z/OS operating system. This supports licence-manager technology. Is this significant?"

It was not what Martin wanted to hear. He realised then that he had to shift direction, away from the minutiae of the technology industry to the bigger picture of human survival. He wanted to find the meaning of the 21st century, to discover what humanity needs to do to pull it through the coming bottleneck of problems caused by the "perfect storm" of population growth, climate change and shortages of food, water and resources.

He set about re-inventing himself, writing a book that would become a manifesto for his philosophy. The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future was published in 2006, a year after the initial launch of his school in Oxford. For Martin, the 21st century represented the point in human history when all the greatest problems will converge together, like a fast-flowing river flowing through a constriction in a deep canyon. He believed that the world will need to tap the intellectual resources of the best minds if we are to survive the coming transition.

Martin energetically set about interviewing anyone who could have anything intelligent to say on the subject. He spoke at length to 70 or 80 leading scientists and thinkers, from Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, and James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia theory, to Sir Crispin Tickell, the former British diplomat and environmentalist, and US Senator John McCain, a fervent advocate of action on climate change. He filmed many of the interviews and, over the years, edited the videos into a documentary with the same name as the book. When he showed the film to Michael Douglas, a Bermudan neighbour at the time, Douglas was so impressed he offered to be the voice of the film's narrator.

Martin was flattered. "The nice thing about Michael Douglas," he says, "is that you also get Catherine Zeta-Jones. We showed them the film down in the gunpowder vaults. By the way, do you want to see them?"

I had read about the hidden gunpowder vaults that Martin had discovered on his island when he was clearing the undergrowth. Back in the 19th century, when cannons were still loaded down the muzzle of the barrel, the British had built a top-secret gunpowder store on Agar's Island, probably the biggest gunpowder store of its kind in the western hemisphere. Fortunately, the gunpowder had been removed many years ago, but the storage vaults remained.

Martin walks me down to the entrance to the underground system through the rock face below his house. A narrow passageway some 25ft deep was cut through the solid volcanic rock around all four sides of the gunpowder store itself. This passageway, open to the sky above, was patrolled by sentries and served the purpose of allowing light and air to circulate through the store to keep the powder dry. A wider passageway leading into the store is lined with bricks imported from England and has an intricate, brick-lined vaulted ceiling, rather like a Victorian railway tunnel. Off the store's central passageway runs a series of 10 large, brick-lined chambers, each with the same vaulted ceilings and "lamp windows" looking out on to the surrounding passageway where the British red coats would patrol 24/7.

Each of the vaulted chambers is big enough to hold a table for 20 people. Two chambers were in fact used by Martin as an underground dining room for New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was looking for a place to hold a private dinner party. Nowadays, some of the chambers are empty, others have snooker and table-tennis tables. One chamber is set up as an underground music room, with no risk of disturbing the neighbours – I wonder what David Bowie and his wife Iman made of it when Martin once gave them a guided tour.

The following day I am driven to the airport by Lillian, Martin's third wife. As I look back toward Agar's Island, the man himself is waving vigorously with both arms. Andrew Crofts had told me that Martin was like all the most eccentric and pleasant teachers you ever had, all rolled into one. "It'll be like staying with an old professor," Crofts had said. He thinks one of the reasons why Martin is not more widely known is down to academic snobbery – he is a freelance scholar who happens to have made a fortune from promulgating his ideas.

His hard-earnt wealth had brought him an enviable lifestyle, but I couldn't help but think of one of his more pessimistic predictions if the world continues on its current course. The world's population, currently 6.8 billion, will increase to perhaps 9.2 billion by 2050, he had told me the night before, and yet we will be losing more farmland to climate change and hence the ability to feed these extra mouths at precisely the time in our history when we will need it most.

"This is almost certainly going to lead to famine and, if we go on with business as usual today, I think that by mid-century we're going to be using the term 'giga-famine', meaning a famine where more than a billion people will die, a catastrophe on a scale that's never been known before on Earth," he said.

Leaving Agar's Island behind, I felt this was one prediction that Martin would be happy to get wrong. The last time I saw him he had turned back to his house, back to his laptop and back to his mission to warn the world about the perils of the future.