Born in Ashby-de-la-Zouche, Leicestershire, England, Martin studied physics on a scholarship at Oxford. He went to work for IBM in 1959 and became an expert on system design, real-time computing, software development, information engineering, and software engineering, and was the main developer of the Rapid Application Development methodology. But it was as an author and lecturer that Martin really made his mark. In 1977 he published The Wired Society: A Challenge for Tomorrow, the 14th book of at least 104 to flow out of him, which laid out his vision of the techno future: a world run by information technology, including fax machines, telecommuting, e-commerce, even cable networks, all joined together by personal computers networked into a giant interconnected information system — essentially, the Internet we have today. The book was a hit; Martin left IBM and founded a number of IT consulting firms. Martin said there was “no crystal ball” to help him predict the future of technology; rather, he simply looked “at the facts and at the logical steps those facts will lead to.”
Unlike many computer visionaries, Martin became rich from his insights. He bought a private island in Bermuda so he could isolate himself to think and write. In 2005 he put his money where his mouth was, making a bequest to Oxford: 60 million pounds (US$125 million), the largest single gift in Oxford’s 900-year history, which was enough not just to establish a chair in a department, but to endow an entire new school; the Oxford Martin School is an “interdisciplinary research community working to address the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.” The idea apparently came out of a lecture Martin was giving in Hong Kong the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: the first question from the audience was about an IBM operating system. It made Martin realize, he said later, that he “needed to shift his focus from the minutiae of technology to the bigger picture of human survival.” “This entire subject needs thorough research and accurate data collection,” he said in 2004. “Because the consequences of getting it wrong are so immense, it is, perhaps, the most important subject we should be studying today. Society needs a School for Civilization, not just a School for Business.” Martin expanded on his thoughts in his 103rd book, The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future. On June 24, he was found dead in the water around his island home, apparently drowned in an accident. He was 79.