Dr. Rocco Martino was a brilliant, eclectic overachiever who transformed society but remained unknown beyond a small group of admiring cognoscenti. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are household names; many know of Jack Kilby, who invented the microchip, and Larry Ellison of Oracle. But Dr. Martino, a Canadian scientist who died June 29, arguably did as much to shape our modern world as a host of better-known people.
Dr. Martino, who was known as Rocky, was never content to restrict his drive and intellect to a single field. Over the course of his career he paved the way for human space flight, facilitated the design of complex construction projects, and laid the footings for the smartphone years before its commercial debut. His low profile was due in large part to his prescience: As a rule he was so close to the cutting edge in whatever discipline he pursued that few of his colleagues could grasp what he was doing.
Rocco Leonard Martino was born of Italian-Canadian immigrants in Toronto on June 25, 1929, and after early education in Toronto received his PhD in 1956 from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. His doctoral thesis involved the then-revolutionary use of a state-of-the-art mainframe computer to calculate, predict and accommodate the extreme conditions (especially frictional heat) endured by a spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at velocities of up to 25,000 kilometres an hour. The analytical and modelling approaches in his doctoral research proved vital to NASA’s subsequent development of the ablative heat shields that safeguard astronauts during their scorching-hot homecomings.
Dr. Martino was an early adopter of and lifelong cheerleader for the digital computer. Not only did he realize its applications in scientific calculations, as in his PhD thesis; he also foresaw its use in teaching mathematics. Years before personal computers were commercially available, he taught his nine-year-old son Peter to program a minicomputer, then flew him to a conference in Chicago on computer-based education.
Dr. Martino was perspicacious enough to see that the delicate, time-intensive programming techniques current in the early 1950s had to be simplified for computers to reach their full potential. He therefore helped modify computer compilers to move programming language from an arcane realm of zeroes and ones to a closer approximation of everyday speech. Dr. Martino also contributed significantly to the development of critical-path method or CPM, a scheduling technique (computerized, of course) that gives project managers a rock-solid base from which they can plan, execute and control large projects. The original World Trade Center towers and the first U.S. ballistic-missile submarines were both constructed using CPM.
A list of Dr. Martino’s colleagues throughout this time reads like a who’s who of 20th-century science and technology. Among other luminaries, he worked with Sir Robert Watson-Watt, a pioneer of radar; Grace Murray Hopper, a key contributor to the universal computer language COBOL; and John Mauchly, co-inventor of the ENIAC – a room-filling, vacuum-tube-powered monster at the University of Pennsylvania that was the most powerful computer of its time.
There was more in his life than work, however. “I like to think that my parents had the first computer date,” jokes Dr. Martino’s son Peter, a businessman and former U.S. Navy submarine officer who lives in Maryland. “Or at least the first date that resulted from computers. One night when Dad and John Mauchly were working together, Dr. Mauchly’s daughter Sidney invited a friend to dinner, Barbara D’Iorio, and asked her father’s hotshot young colleague to join them. Dad and Mom married six months later and were together for nearly 60 years.”
In 1972, after professorships at the University of Waterloo (one of Canada’s leading centres for its use of and research on digital computers) and New York University, Dr. Martino incorporated his own company, XRT, after settling down in Villanova, Pa., to raise his family.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Martino wondered if the vast and growing power of computers could be united with the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. By 1995 he had developed and patented the CyberFone, a convergent-technology prototype that provided proof of concept for what we now know as the smartphone, a dozen years before the first iPhone was launched.
Other people made billions from such ideas, but Dr. Martino never envied them – for him the joy of invention mattered more than wealth and fame. But even the loftiest of his professional accomplishments took second place to his personal relationships; he never neglected friends or family to attain his goals. Peter Martino remembers a father who was always there for him: coaching baseball, leading his Cub Scout pack, patrolling nearby while he learned to sail, and judging races of Sunfish and Laser sailboats.
To profession and family, Dr. Martino added a strong commitment to religious belief, and was throughout his life a vigorous member of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the 30 books he published was The Resurrection, a novelized treatment of Jesus’s execution and its aftermath, which fleshed out imagined dialogues among participants (disciples, Roman officers, Pharisaic priests) with a rigorous forensic examination of the event – crime-scene investigation circa AD 30. Another book, Rocket Ships and God, addressed and dismissed the conflicts between science and religion that many people assume exist – wrongly, in Dr. Martino’s opinion.
Dr. Martino served on the boards of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the National Italian American Foundation, the Gregorian University Foundation and the Papal Foundation. In the course of this activity he met popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis, and was recognized for his contributions by the church. Dr. Martino was made a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory; a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem; and a Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta.
In 2014, Dr. Martino summed up his professional approach for the U.S. online magazine Inventors Digest: “As Machiavelli so aptly put it some five hundred years ago, ‘Nothing is more perilous to success than a new system or idea: It will meet great resistance from those who are affected and only lukewarm support from those who will benefit.’ There are plenty of people with an opinion about what is innovative and not, but listening to them won’t do you much good. As a race we humans must innovate, not imitate; if we don’t we will stagnate and eventually die. Our instinct for survival is like a compass that points us toward the future.” At this point, six years before his death, Inventors Digest estimated that computer systems designed by Dr. Martino were moving several trillion U.S. dollars daily around the globe.
In 2018, Dr. Martino was diagnosed with stage-four metastasized cancer, but persisted as long as he could in his newest interest, a prototype for a health-care companion robot to assist the old and infirm. At his request he spent his last six months at home, slipping in and out of consciousness. “When he awoke,” Peter says, “he was always asking those who visited him how he could help.” He leaves his wife, Barbara; sons, Peter, Joseph, Paul and John; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Significantly, he died in the den that a half-century earlier had held his first home computer.