“Six of the Best” – Famous dead people

One, rather obvious phenomenon associated with getting older is that you know more dead people. It is also a phenomenon of the modern world. Although we do not have any more relatives and not that many more friends and acquaintances than our forebears, the media ensure that we are familiar with many, many more celebrities.

And, of course, celebrities end up dead eventually …

In my experience, there are two possible odd things that can happen on the death of a famous person. Sometimes I find myself (rather guiltily) surprised to hear that, hitherto, they had still been alive. The other possibility is that the death is announced and very rapidly eclipsed by the great onrush of news to which we are all subjected. If this happens when I am traveling, I may miss the news altogether and be sadly surprised to hear it many months or even years later.

In this latest in my Six of the Best series of posts, I thought that I would highlight some people who meant something to me or inspired me in some way. There have, of course, been many more than six people who have influenced me, so this is a somewhat random sample.

John Peel

I am unsure of the extent of his fame outside of the UK, but I am fairly certain that most British adults would be familiar with John Peel. He was best known as a DJ with an eclectic taste in music, who often gave up-and-coming musicians some valuable airtime. Many well-known performers credit him with being a key contributor to their success. My memory of him was mainly from a show on BBC Radio 4 – Home Truths – which we listened to every Saturday morning. The show relied on contributions from listeners, which is where John Peel came in. His style made everyone feel that he was talking to them personally. I never met him, but I had a clear feeling that I knew him. When he died, it felt like I had lost a friend.

Johnny Morris

When I was a child and the whole world was rendered in black and white, Johnny Morris was popular in a number of children’s TV shows involving animals. He was well known for anthropomorphising the creatures by giving them voices. It sounds silly now, but it was entertaining then. Many years later, he did some radio programs about travelling around the world, in which he would paint vivid pictures of the people and places – but particularly the people. This was long before the age of podcasts and suchlike, so I recall ordering a set of cassette tape (remember those?) recordings from the BBC, which I later converted to MP3 files. I always found his voice soothing and reassuring in a grandfatherly way. It felt like he would always be there. And then, one day, he was not.

Carl Sagan

As I have had a life long interest in science and technology, there are naturally quite a few TV presenters and scientists who appeared in TV programs, who left an impression. I am not sure why Carl Sagan popped up for a special mention. I think there was something about his gentle presentation style, combined with unbounded enthusiasm, that left it’s mark. His series Cosmos was particularly memorable – I think that I still have the book, which was a serious investment for me at the time.

Eric Laithwaite

This is probably the name which is most likely to be unfamiliar on this list. Eric Laithwaite was a electrical engineer and a professor at Imperial College in London for much of his career. He is well known as the inventor of the linear motor and the maglev rail system. Although I never met him in person, I had a memorable encounter with him, which is why he came to mind. He did a series of TV science shows aimed at children, which I found quite inspiring. I wrote a letter to him describing an idea that I had for a novel technology using electrostatics. In due course, he wrote back. It was quite a long, hand-written letter which carefully explained that my idea, though based on sound principles, would not work well in practice. He went on to describe how something similar had been achieved. He urged me to keep the ideas coming as they are the fuel of technological advance. I was so impressed by the trouble he took to encourage a young person who was looking at pursuing a science based education. I can even attribute my involvement with the STEM Ambassador program today, to some extent, to his encouragement.

Jim Croce

Like many people, I first encountered Jim Croce’s music in the early 70s, when his untimely death in a plane crash resulted in a surge of publicity. I often wonder how he would have developed if he had lived on. His music still has a strong following. I have a particular recollection of my feelings about one of his songs – “I have to Say I Love in a Song”. It was about a guy too shy to communicate his feelings in the usual way. I recall thinking at the time that maybe, one day, I would use a recording of this song to convey this sentiment. (And I did!)

Linda Smith

Of these six people, the only one who was a similar age to me, was Linda Smith. She came to fame in the late 90s as a stand up comedienne and radio/TV personality. This was (and largely still is) a very male-dominated profession. Most women who had any success have some kind of novelty – perhaps glamorous, an unusual nationality, particularly foul mouthed or maybe just unattractive. Linda Smith was none of these things. Her ordinariness was almost her trademark. I think that her death at such a young age, as well as the date of her death (a few weeks before my late wife’s death) has kept her in my mind.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2014/10/04/six-of-the-best-famous-dead-people/