RIP Danny Cohen: The computer scientist who gave world endianness meets his end aged 81

He also developed one of the first ever flight simulators

The computer scientist who created the first visual flight simulator, gave us the compsci concept of endianness and whose pioneering work blazed a trail for modern VOIP services has died at the age of 81.

Dr Danny Cohen worked on one of the first ever computer-based flight simulations in the early 1970s, an era where most think of computing as something that was still reliant on punch cards instead of advanced graphics processing and display technologies.

In addition, Cohen gave us the compsci notion of endianness and developed some of the first clustered computing deployments – paving the way for modern cloud technology.

The flight simulator created was very basic by modern standards but wouldn't be bested by generally available software until the advent of home gaming consoles more than a decade later.

Youtube Video

What made his flight sim achievements even more remarkable was that it wasn't until after he developed the simulator that Cohen learned to fly in real life, as he told Wired in a 2012 interview.

Cohen, who was born in what would become Israel, also carried out some early work on what he described as "digital voice teleconferencing" in 1978, as this Youtube video published from an account seemingly in Cohen's name sets out.

Youtube Video

ARPAnet was the US military research network which was effectively the forerunner of the modern internet. Digital voice teleconferencing is the underlying idea for modern VoIP technology, powering everything from Skype to voice calls over countless digital apps and suites.

On top of that, the concept of endianness was introduced to compsci by Cohen through his seminal 1980 paper "On holy wars and a plea for peace", as preserved by the IETF. Boiling it down to a disarmingly simple question ("What is the proper byte order in messages?"), Cohen's explanation of the problem in layman's English, layering on his straightforward explanations and building up to its full complexity, carved him a permanent niche in the history of modern computing.

By the early 2000s Cohen was working for Sun Microsystems, having toiled for many years as an advisor to the US Air Force and laboured on a number of projects, including an IETF standard focused on distributed interactive simulation, a military application of technology for virtual wargaming by the armed forces. He retired in 2012.

Posting on a Hacker News thread about his demise, Cohen's son revealed that his father had joined the Flat Earth Society: "He assumed the society was a joke until they rejected him for being a scientist, but he applied again without listing profession and they let him in," going on to link to a picture of his father's Flat Earth Society membership certificate and his initial rejection letter from society founder Charles Johnson. Cohen framed the certificate, the rejection letter and the Flat Earth Society's map of the (flat) world, complete with an emblazoned "Australia Not Down Under".

The Internet Hall of Fame inducted him into their ranks in 2012, recognising him as a pioneer.

Aside from his industrial and research work, Cohen was a compsci professor at the University of Southern California, having earned his doctorate from Harvard. His first higher qualification, a master's in applied mathematics, was awarded to him by his native Israel's Technion Institute of Technology in the 1960s.

Cohen's son, David, said his father's passing was due to Parkinson's disease.

Danny Cohen, computer scientist. 9 December 1937 – 12 August 2019. ®

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