Interview: Dr James Martin

Dr James Martin, entrepreneur, visionary, "guru of the information age", "father of Case", ranked fourth in the world by Computerworld among the most influential people in the computer industry, Martin is not only a distinguished technology expert, but also a leading business authority, generally acknowledged as THE specialist on the social and business implications of computers and technology.

Dr James Martin, entrepreneur, visionary, "guru of the information age", "father of Case", ranked fourth in the world by Computerworld among the most influential people in the computer industry, Martin is not only a distinguished technology expert, but also a leading business authority, generally acknowledged as THE specialist on the social and business implications of computers and technology. Through his lectures, books, and videotapes, he has influenced millions of information technology professionals.

One of the UK's top three multi-millionaires in the computer industry, Martin was named on the Independent's 'Happy List' in 2009 in acknowledgement of his $100m benefaction to establish the James Martin 21st Century Institute in 2005. He ranks alongside those multi-millionaires who have chosen to give their money away rather than hoarding in order to qualify for the Sunday Times Rich List.

The pioneer

In 1952 IBM introduced its first commercially-available computer, the IBM 701. The press called it an 'electronic brain'.

"They are expensive today," an engineer at Rolls Royce explained to Martin, while he was reading about these computers in his youth, "but they are going to come crashing down in cost."

Martin started his career with IBM and worked with the first-generation computers. The first computer with disks was the 305 RAMAC. There was one in England, and it became Martin's baby. He programmed it and installed it everywhere. "I used to think of it as a personal computer - even though it weighed 40 tonnes - in a sense it was, because it had a disc".

It was the size of a room, its discs held a total of five million characters, and the press called it the "Miracle Memory Machine".

"What's amazing is that the IBM 305 did 50 operations per second" says Martin, "Today IBM makes a computer which does more than a 1,000 trillion operations per second. In comparison, the portable computer I carry on airplanes today is 150,000 times faster and has 20 times the disc capacity. Its purchase price is less than the monthly rental of the 305 RAMAC. It almost never fails, whereas the 305 conked out daily."

The author, lecturer and business leader

It is for his celebrated books and global lecture tours that many of us remember Martin best. Having written more text books than any other human being his numerous best-sellers are widely regarded as the best sources of information on database, telecommunications, teleprocessing, interactive systems, impact of computers on commerce and society, and software development tools and methodologies. He chuckles as he says, "Some universities are still using text books which I wrote 30 years ago."

He wrote his first book (Programming Real-Time Computer Systems) in 1963. "I remember sitting down in a hotel in London, staring at the blank pad of paper in front of me. After 20 minutes, I wrote the first sentence - 'A revolution is taking place in the world of data processing'. Then I had great difficulty getting a second sentence and it was several hours before I got one."

His book, The Wired Society famously earned him a nomination for a Pulitzer prize. "But my sphere changed significantly after 9/11. I was already interested in the problems of the planet, so I stopped working on computers and IT and started to focus my efforts on the big problems of the planet". This resulted in Martin's latest book The Meaning of the 21st Century, which globally became the highest-rated book in library borrowing for two years and was turned into a film.

James Martin - the trail-blazer, breaking down barriers

  • 103 Books: Martin has written more text books than any other human being - one of which, The Wired Society, was nominated for a Pulitzer prize.
  • 400+ educational tapes: produced between 1978-1994 - at one time Martin had produced a library of comprehensive computer educational tapes greater than anyone else on the planet.
  • Five-day Seminars: from 1977-2000, Uniquely in the computer industry, for 24 years, Martin gave a world series of hugely successful five-day seminars in which he was the sole lecturer on a host of cutting edge subjects.
  • First person to be given rights to royalties from his books while still in the employ of IBM.
  • First non-American on the software scientific advisory board of the US Department of Defense.
  • First person to establish a truly multi-disciplinary research institute specifically established to research the global problems of the 21st century.
  • First person to enact a fund-matching scheme to raise $100m at Oxford University.
  • First person in the history of Oxford University to have his name paired with the university with the branding of the Oxford Martin School.
  • Largest Benefactor to Oxford University in its year 900 history.
  • Largest British donor to a UK university.

Dr. James Martin’s main donations 


Martin's 'son et lumiere' worldwide series of five-day seminars became legendary in the industry, attracting sell-out audiences of high-level executives seeking to hear about the future of technology and its effects on their businesses and lives. His educational background, complemented by his solid business and technological experience, made him one of the world's best-attended lecturers ever.

The topics covered a wide diversity of aspects in computing and telecommunications, but it was his ability to associate and synthesise different aspects of technology and carry an idea from one field to another that made them so compelling. Uniquely in the industry, for 24 years, from 1977 to 2000, Martin gave these seminars for five solid, consecutive days by himself, lecturing without any notes for the duration. He continues to be in constant demand to lecture to big audiences around the world, and meet leaders.

Well-renowned internationally as a premier strategist on management and information technology Martin has acted as consultant and high-level advisor to heads of state, governments, statesmen and business leaders of major global corporations around the world. Based on his private island, there is a constant stream of high-profile visitors. He fondly recalls, "When Bill Gates stayed at my house some 25 years ago, he was endlessly fascinated to talk about software strategy, software makers, the computer industry, running corporations. We chatted till four in the morning. But he had never thought about anything in society at that time. That came much later in his life."

After 18 years at IBM, Martin founded a host of successful companies, including:

  • James Martin Associates (later Texas Instruments) and KnowledgeWare (later Sterling) - both of which were the leading two Case tools in the 1980s and 1990s
  • James Martin Insight (later NEC), the leading information systems multi-media educational products company
  • James Martin & Co (now Headstrong) a worldwide group that designs and implements IT business solutions
  • He also co-founded and was chairman of Graphnet, the first tariffed value-added carrier
  • DMW, a telecommunications group
  • Bimillenium, a company making scientific software
  • WatchIT, an internet-based education company
  • Computer Channel
  • OneSoft, a leading provider of XML-native e-commerce infrastructure software.

Martin's work and philanthropy have resulted in a host of awards and honours including:

  • The Queen's award for Export (1987)
  • The Enterprise Engineering Excellence Award (1996)
  • The Sheldon Medal (2004) - Oxford University's highest honour
  • The Lifeboat Foundation's Guardian Award for safeguarding humanity (2007) - other recipients include Prince Charles, Warren Buffet and Stephen Hawking
  • Honorary Fellowship of Keble College, Oxford (2005)
  • Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science (2007)
  • Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Institution (2009)
  • Honorary doctorates from all six continents.

James Martin: Futurist

It was while at IBM that James Martin started to demonstrate an impressive track record of accurate predictions about future technology.

In the 1960s, he was predicting the growth of teleprocessing, online storage, real-time systems, micro-computers, communications satellites, optical fibres, value-added carriers, and leisure computing, while in the 1970s, he was predicting mobile phones, ATMs, the World Wide Web, the internet, e-mail, e-commerce, instant messaging, telecommuting, and PDAs.

In the 1980s, he predicted the growth of application development tools and originated the terms "fourth-generation languages" and "I-Case", as well as developing the information engineering and rapid application development methodologies. More recently, he has turned his attentions to the rapidly deteriorating problems facing the planet, which has lead to his latest book, The meaning of the 21st century, in which he discusses the practical actions that can be taken to alleviate them, which will eventually lead to radical changes in civilization.

James Martin: philanthropist

As the largest donor to a UK university, Martin says "I find it strange that I am actually the largest individual benefactor to Oxford University in its 900-year history."

But he is quick to point out, "I regard myself as not being a philanthropist. I wouldn't want to just give money in general like, for example, Warren Buffet. I very much want to make something happen and create something I really believe in. That means investing in great people."

"So many people who have several hundred millions put it all in hedge-funds and money managers where it stays until they die, which is not the way to live. We need to convince them that they will have much more fun if they use that money by investing it in creating something meaningful", he says.

"It is actually in all our interests to invest in the future, but we have to do it in the right way. It is all about harnessing 'idea power'."

For Martin, the greatest manifestation of this investment was his establishment of the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford (recently renamed the Oxford Martin School).

"The world must have global universities dealing with global inter-disciplinary problems", Martin says. "Having observed the rapidly worsening problems of the planet, I began to ask myself, how can I make a difference to the planet and how can I change the planet? So the purpose of the school is to take the biggest problems of the planet and the biggest opportunities, and understand and research them in order to make a huge difference to the planet."

The school was founded in 2005 - its mission being 'to utilise integrated scholarship across a range of disciplines to identify, research and find solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. The school brings together both scholars and practitioners from around the world to pursue world-class leading-edge research and influence policy in areas that are critical to the 21st century.'

In order to expand the already successful school, in 2009 Martin suggested the unprecedented move to the University of creating a matching grant scheme to raise a further $100m for more Institutes. He recalls the comments at the time, "Everybody said you've got to be crazy. Don't you realise this is the worst economic crash ever? The timing is preposterous. No-one will give you any money, as we are at the deepest point of the worst financial crisis in history. And by the way the English don't give money to universities, so you stand a snowball's chance. The general consensus was that it was all just too stupid for words."

Yet, despite coming under such heavy criticism for his initiative, it is a great testament to Martin's stature on the global stage that not only did this scheme attract the support of some of the biggest names and foundations in the world, from Bill Gates to George Soros, but it was also oversubscribed by 80%, and achieved its target well within the specified one year time-frame.

"The school is tackling very urgent problems such as global warming. They cant' wait. You have to find solutions quickly, and many of the donors and foundations understood that, which is why the match funding scheme has been such a fabulous success."

Martin has personally contributed 13% to the total of the university's fundraising campaign to-date, and with the matching grant scheme, his combined initiative makes a total of 20%.

There is a real feeling of pride that Martin is making a difference with his benefactions. "It makes me realise I have started something which is going to make an extraordinary difference. The institute has changed the culture of the university, which I wouldn't have imagined I could do. It is very difficult to change Oxford. And what I was doing here (with the school) was changing a small part of the culture to do multi-disciplinary academia. The university had no inter-disciplinary scholarship at all. And the school is taking very real, grave problems which need multiple disciplines, and putting a team together with all the different disciplines, thereby creating a truly multi-dimensional operation. This is unique. I hope I have contributed with the school and multi-disciplinary research to do things of immense importance which other universities are not doing yet."

Martin’s legacy will always reside in his ongoing 100-plus books which represent the seminal history of IT in the twentieth century. His ultimate legacy, however, will be The Oxford Martin School. “This is something that has changed my life totally,” he says. “I feel I’d like to say to other donors, 'Do something like this to change your life too'.”

James Martin: Innovator

  • 1959 Advocating disk-based interactive computing - Martin implemented systems with the world's first disk-based computer
  • 1961 Advocated linking computers to telecommunication lines which eventually led to the first computer networks
  • 1963 Wrote the definitive book on Programming Real-Time Computer Systems
  • 1964 Designed and helped build BOADICEA for BOAC - the first worldwide reservation network outside the US
  • 1978 The Wired Society described a future society with global networks and computers on desktops and handheld phones - 20 years later its predictions proved to be accurate and he was nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • 1982 Replaced plastic design templates with computer-aided design on a screen
  • 1982 Advocated automated programming by computers rather than humans
  • 1987 Developed and published diagramming standards for analysts and programmers, as a basis for automating the design and generation of systems
  • 1984 Computer Aided Software Engineering (Case) - developed the concept of Case tools for planning and designing computer systems and generating code for them
  • 1984 Information Engineering (IE) - developed an integrated family of techniques for the strategy and planning of information systems, linked to tools for developing those systems with engineering precision
  • 1984 Information Engineering Facility (IEF) - developed an integrated workbench to automate the software development cycle - the IEF (eventually bought by Texas Instruments)
  • 1984 Information Engineering Workbench (IEW) - With Knowledgeware, developed modular, integrated workbench to automate the software development cycle called the IEW
  • 1990  Published his book Hyperdocuments & How to Create Them in February 1990. Describing documents linked into networks by pointers and virtual connections, it became the basis of the World Wide Web, later created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. 
  • 1996 Developed integrated methodologies for high-speed application development - “RAD” – Rapid Application Development.
  • 1996  His book, Cybercorp, describes The Cybercorp Revolution - the characteristics of corporations designed to take full advantage of the age of cyberspace.

Yva Thakurdas is a management consultant, philanthropist & freelance writer

This article is the second in a series of occasional articles about IT philanthropists

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