Daniel McCracken, the Greatest Computing McCracken, Has Died

By  |  Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Shortly after I got interested in computers in 1978, I took note of the fact that there were a bunch of books about then-current computing topics such as FORTRAN programming by one Daniel D. McCracken. His work seemed to be everywhere. He was no relation, but learning of his existence pleased me–there are relatively few of us McCrackens in the world.

Daniel McCracken died at the age of 81 on July 30th of this year in New York, but his passing only made the news last week, and I only became aware of it today. Here’s Friday’s New York Times’ obituary, by Steve Lohr, who calls him the Stephen King of programming books.

McCracken ended up writing or co-writing more than two dozen books, including ones on major programming languages such as ALGOL, COBOL, Modula-2 and Pascal, as well as Web site development.  They sold a total of 1.6 million copies. McCracken also taught programming at the City College of New York until his death. His biography there says that he wrote the first programming textbook in 1971; I don’t know for sure that he did, but he was surely the first important author of such tomes. He received numerous honors from the computing industry and co-edited a book with Margaret Mead. Given his success as an author and long career as a teacher, he may have showed more people how to program computers than any other one person.

I’ve long known that his work had made a major impact because people in tech industry have frequently asked me–as recently as a couple of weeks ago–whether I was related to him. Some have assumed he’s my father. One correspondent, in fact, even remained convinced that I was the FORTRAN textbook McCracken, even after he saw a photo of me that made pretty clear that I wasn’t writing books during the heyday of mainframes He seemed to suspect some sort of conspiracy; I took it as a compliment.

(Other computing McCrackens who people occasionally ask me about include Ed McCracken, the former CEO of Silicon Graphics, and Bill McCracken, an IBM veteran who’s the current CEO of CA. I’m not related to either of those ones, either, and Bill’s the only one of the three who I ever met.)

I’m sorry to say that I never bothered to learn that much about Daniel McCracken, and in fact wasn’t certain whether he was alive or not until I read his New York Times obituary. He sounds like he was a neat guy. How can you not love someone who was showing people how to program computers when the only computers were mainframes–and who continued on for so long that he was recently teaching Android programming? “This field changes at a blinding rate, so I am continually doing something new,” his City College bio quotes him as saying.

If there were a how-to computer-book hall of fame–and maybe there should be–he’d be one of the first inductees, along with Sybex’s Rodney Zaks and DOS for Dummies author Dan Gookin.


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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Cesar Says:

    Fantastic! Imagine this man's mind working actively teaching Android programming at this age!

    My first contact with Cobol was 1979 at the age of 16, in a mainframe programming course, but only in 1983 I have started programming professionally using microcomputers (languages like BASIC, Cobol, Pascal, Assembly etc).

  2. John Baxter Says:

    I can believe the "first programming textbook author" bit.

    Per New York Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/13/technology/dani… ), he wrote his first book (not "textbook") in 1957: "Digital Computer Programming". I read that one shortly after it came out.

    Harry, that's the book I asked you about a few years ago.

    We've lost a giant.


  3. akella Says:

    McCracken wrote great books,with major programming languages and Web site development. He was a great man. I`m sory for their loss..

  4. Bart Evans Says:

    After writing my first programs in BASIC in 1965 via Dartmouth timeshare on their GE-235 (we were the first high school test site), FORTRAN in 1966 as a freshman, and SAIL in 1969 at Stanford, my first civilian job after getting out of the Army in 1976 was with Lockheed, Sunnyvale, where I built a specialized 6-channel test rack based on 8080-based cards from Intel. The language of the day, after assembler, was PL/M and I have his 1978 "Guide to PL/M Programming for Microcomputer Applications" right here at my side as I write/type. PL/M made everything a lot easier and produced tight code at that. You burned your code to 2704 EPROMs in those days.

    Daniel really was a giant. May he rest in peace.

    – Bart

  5. Mark Hernandez Says:

    Like Cesar, John and Bart I got my start way back then and wrote software in Fortran, Algol and Pascal, and know I've read McCracken's books at some point. We've witness all the changes over the past four+ decades.

    Things have changed so much. For instance, there are now over 80 books in print teaching how to program for iOS in Objective-C. And while there are more resources now, in many ways things are now just a bigger mess. It would be fascinating to do research and actually characterize how things have changed from McCracken's time to now.

    It's great to stop and acknowledge someone's body of work and their contribution. Personalities like these are harder to find these days because things have become much more complex and involved.

  6. Ingrid J Says:

    Prof. McCraken was a great teacher I will forever miss him. RIP my belove profesor and mentor.