It's almost poetic that in the weeks since Jack Clemens died his family has spent some time talking about how he should be remembered.
Clemens, you see, was all about memory, going back to San Jose in the 1950s when he was part of the IBM team developing the RAMAC, the precursor to the computer hard drives that we all rely on nearly every day.
"He was one of the people who got it going," says Pat Clemens, his wife of 52 years. "And people don't even think about it today. Everybody uses computers but they don't think about how computers used to take up huge rooms."
We don't think about it much, the way computer storage has gone from the stack of dozens of 24-inch disks the RAMAC used for memory to a thumb drive so tiny it fits in our pockets with room to spare.
But Clemens, 79, who was living in Brentwood when he died of cardiac arrest last month, was on the front lines of the battle to miniaturize, working for decades for a string of Silicon Valley companies in the memory business.
And it's not that Clemens' contributions were entirely ignored. The Computer History Museum recorded his oral history in 2007, for instance. It's just that what he's best known for is building and flying a 20-foot model of the USS Macon, a dirigible that was based at Moffett Field in the 1930s. He made the pages of Popular Science and this newspaper for that quirky accomplishment.
"It really was a work of art," Pat Clemens says. "It was gorgeous."
But it was nothing, really, compared to the years he put in helping push technology forward to the point where it became physically possible for every person to have a computer in his or her home and then in his or her pocket.
It's the nature of technology, which in the end is a team sport. The valley is full of people who helped with major innovations -- microprocessors, displays, Wi-Fi networks, cellular communications, mobile devices, apps -- but who remain anonymous to those of us who benefit from the breakthroughs.
Every generation tends to become fascinated with its own technological leaps forward. But why not take a moment now and then to consider the early efforts that the current generation is building on? Invariably it was work done not only by one or two well-known innovators, but by an army of smart people determined to do something new. People like Jack Clemens.
"He's always been so influential in my life," says daughter Nancy Clemens, 51, of Santa Cruz, who recently launched an educational software startup. "And I think a lot of what I'm doing in high-tech myself, I attribute to his presence in my life.''
Nancy Clemens says she worked with her father late in his career when he was a consultant to high-tech companies. She was amazed at his technical talents but also with his ability to brainstorm, write well and tell a good story. She knew he was a tech star, but the full impact of his work didn't hit her until she toured the Computer History Museum with him during its 2006 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the disk drive.
"Going through this whole tour, it was just one thing after another," she says. "He mentioned how he had touched it, what he had done to solve this problem and that problem, and it felt really like a tour of the whole disk drive industry from his perspective of solving problems."
Jack Clemens did see a lot of the industry, beginning in 1957 with IBM on Notre Dame Avenue. He'd go on to work at Memorex, Datapoint, Winchester and Maxtor before becoming an industry consultant. And what becomes clear when you review his career is that Jack Clemens was an archetype Silicon Valley innovator before there officially was a Silicon Valley. You think insane deadlines and serial all-nighters are some hold overs from the dot-com era? Guess again, junior.
In the oral history, Clemens described his RAMAC days in San Jose.
"This was seven days a week, eight, ten, twelve-hour days, pretty routine," he told interviewer Jim Porter. "I remember one Sunday afternoon, about 6 o'clock, as we left the lab, one of the guys said, 'Have a nice weekend,' because we were going to be back about 7 o'clock the next morning."
Neither the man nor the era were immune to the valley's penchant for keeping score with money. Clemens talked with Porter about a stretch in 1970 when many engineers were leaving IBM. "They all seemed to be doing quite well. Companies were all prospering. They all had good salaries. They all had stock options. They were all going to be rich. And I was sitting there at IBM."
But more than any of that, Jack Clemens epitomized the drive that has positioned Silicon Valley as the innovation capital of the world. From the day he first saw the massive RAMAC whirring, he had the bug.
"The RAMAC was the most animated disk drive ever built," he said. "It was an exciting thing to just watch it."
But not nearly as exciting as working to make it better and then moving on to make the thing that would render it obsolete. That's how a technologist thinks.
And in the end, that's most likely how Jack Clemens would want to be remembered.
Born: Oct. 27, 1933, in
Died: Nov. 20, 2012, in
Survivors: wife, Pat Clemens; daughters Nancy Clemens, Michele Clemens; sons Jeff Clemens, Sean Clemens; sister Jeanne Aeby; brothers Robert Clemens, Thomas Clemens and six grandchildren.
Memorial: Donations may be made to the Hearing Loss Association of America, PO Box 5495, Walnut Creek, Calif. 94596