Martin King

My dear friend Martin King passed away last week. He was perhaps the most remarkable, intelligent, tall, good-hearted, inventive, generous, and thoroughly frustrating person I have ever known.

Our lives were closely intertwined for many years, despite the fact that we lived thousands of miles apart. He and I filed dozens of patents and started three companies together. Amongst other things not normally associated with business relationships, we also explored antique stores in Amsterdam, flew to Hong Kong for a long weekend, and took long road trips through the deserts of Oregon, discussing pixel-encoding algorithms and the meaning of life between loud bursts of Leonard Cohen.


Martin was always full of surprises. I remember him casually mentioning once that he had sailed single-handed across the Atlantic. I remember his descriptions of tree-level helicopter flights in Vietnam. And even amongst those familiar with the technology which brought him financial success – the T9 predictive-text software for mobile phones – few know it was a direct development of his early work on a low-cost eye-tracking system for those with paraplegia.

Both T9, and the company Tegic which created it, were significant achievements. T9 saved you having to tap the ‘2’ key three times to get the letter ‘C’, for example, because it used a dictionary to establish that a limited number of words – often only one – could be represented by the sequence of keys you had typed. Some disliked or were confused by the system, but for many it was the only way to perform text input at a reasonable speed on the phones of yesteryear.

In these days of iPhone app stores it seems primitive, but there were some serious challenges back then. Memory on mobile devices was expensive stuff, so they had to pack a decent-sized dictionary – 64,000 words – into 64Kbytes. That’s a good problem for a Computer Science project. (And don’t make it too dependent on the structure of English words, because when you need to show it to Samsung you’ll want to throw together a demo in Korean.) But there was a business hurdle to overcome, too: at that time all the software on a phone was written by the manufacturer, and T9 was, I believe, the first third-party software to be licensed and incorporated by all the major vendors. Others can tell the Tegic story better than me, since it happened several years before I knew Martin. But I hope that somebody will, because I suspect in the hands of the right author it would make a cracking good yarn.

Martin could become intensely focussed on a project or topic, to an extent that was sometimes uncomfortable. He became obsessed with things that frustrated him, including, sometimes, people, who usually through no fault of their own would suddenly fall out of favour, and some found themselves encouraged to pursue their careers elsewhere. He was always fair, often very generous, in compensating those affected, but it can’t have been easy to be on the receiving end, wondering where it had all gone wrong…

Yet it was this focus on his frustrations that also made him so incredibly inventive. Things would bug him, and he would ask why they had to be that way. Some of our most enjoyable discussions – and quite a few patents – would come when one of us, usually he, posed a question like “Why do you have to reset your watch manually every time you fly to another country?” And then the notebooks would come out and all plans of getting any sleep on the plane would be cast aside.

When Martin was diagnosed with multiple myeloma five years ago, there were times when we thought he might only be around for a few more months, and times when the prognosis seemed much more hopeful. We’d always discussed life and death pretty openly, so it was easy to talk about the latter now. By way of expressing my gratitude for this, I once told him, rather inelegantly, “Well, Martin, if I had to have a friend who was dying, I’d want it to be you.” He laughed out loud, and quoted this back to me on many an occasion.

Martin, you were an inspiration.

19 Comments

Very sad news. He was very brave. When I first met him he told me that he looked at Death as a trip into the unknown on the Star Ship Enterprise. He was the very epitome of the brilliant but eccentric inventor – a millionaire who possibly felt guilty about his sudden wealth and who wore second hand clothes.

I’m glad I’m not the only one to admit that I found him inspiring and frustrating in equal measures, though, and have been on the wrong end of uncontrolled rants from him while trapped first on a ferry, and then in his car. There were times when he was the most genial, brilliant and fascinating company, and other times when I just wanted to be as far away as possible from his intensity, frustration, and angst.

I have to say that my brief time in Martin’s employ made a big impression on me, and I have been really effected by his passing away. I do hope that something really good comes of his last invention at Exbiblio.

I don’t know Martin King, but with such a great article dedicated by friend, i couldn’t help but post. I send my condolences to his family and friends.

It is a beautiful blog post Q.

One memory I had was his straight-to-the-heart questions he would ask people in job interviews. For example, he often asked job candidates how they dealt with panhandlers on the way to our office. Once he told a sales guy in an interview “you are bullshitter aren’t you?” and then they discussed that for an hour.

I think that everyone who encountered him, even for a moment, was challenged to consider themselves, their work, and their impact on their community in a new way.

Well-said, Quentin. I was contacted a few days ago by a journalist writing a story about Martin for a Seattle newspaper, and when asked how I would describe Martin, I replied: “He was a rare and special human being who combined the brilliance and curiosity of an Einstein with the heart and compassion of a Mother Theresa”. Well, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but damned close to the truth, methinks.

Having slogged through the trenches with Martin at Tegic, and at Exbiblio, I share all of the observations about the ups and downs of working with such an intellectually intense and frustrating man. On balance, his extraordinary compassion and generosity outshine all the flaws of a man who was quite impatient for his ideas to propagate. It was my privilege to have crossed paths with Martin. He will be missed.

Bill, yes, I heartily agree.

I thought it only right – he would have wanted it – to mention that he wasn’t always easy to work with.

I could have written many pages more about our friendship, about the fun of working together, and about his compassion for those around him, but I wanted to keep it to a reasonable length.

I hope it’s clear, though, that the balance is definitely in his favour, and that I loved him dearly.

Not many people know this about Martin King… His generosity and kindness and beautiful spirit went beyond borders in this country… He came to Bethlehem in the West Bank. The first time i met him i wondered who this tall, bearded, ripped jeans man was and what he wanted. (We get all kinds of strange people there).. from the first moment i was fully engaged with him in a deep talk on the political situation and life in the Middle East. He was in full support of the Palestinian struggle through nonviolence.
Those who seek peace in the Middle East, remember a great friend , Martin King. He was a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur but with this success, he always looked to serve and be actively involved in causes of justice and Palestine became an issue that touched his heart closely.
We miss you and love you…
Sami

I had the opportunity to work with Martin for many years doing a variety of things. The best part was working with him on his philanthropy. Martin wanted to move money off shore to help people in need around the world. An international funding circle that he was a leader in starting is very active today: http://www.pangeagiving.org.

His interest in funding development and peace initiatives in the Middle East landed him in a holding cell at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv one evening. It was during the Second Intifada. He called to say that he was keeping good company with others denied entry to Israel – aid workers and writers. I reminded him that those whom the gods would drive crazy, are interested in the Middle East. He laughed.

I traveled to Vietnam to find grassroots projects for Martin to fund. He helped many women there who were unable to marry due to the war. They were now elderly and without family support. He helped to brighten their days.

Martin wanted everything to “scale” immediately. He had a vision that many could not see. That was hard on him sometimes. And those around him.

For many years, I sent him daily email with updates on a variety of his projects. I always closed the email with “all is well”.

Rest in peace, Martin. All is well.

Very nicely written Q –

I loved the little story that Adam mentioned and can remember a few dozen candidates that I interviewed, passed on to Martin who usually wanted me to sit in on the interview with him. He would ask crazy questions of people or make statements that I couldn’t figure out if they were designed to disturb or just a genuine curiosity on behalf of Martin. We were interviewing a CEO candidate one time and about half way through the interview Martin just makes a statement “All these guys don’t get it, they just don’t get it”. Really awkward but he was right at the time.

I also remember a time when several of us were having a heated discussion about something very technical. With Martin, the fabric of the conversation would quickly move to the seemingly esoteric parts of the technology and he was usually right or accurate. Not this time and several of us weren’t having it. He finally could see that it really wasn’t “fact” that he was feeling strongly about but his “opinion” and he said “Well…. (insert long Martin pause here)… I just see things other people don’t see”. We all had a good laugh over it and for a long time afterward he could get a grin from the comment.

And that really summed up quite a lot about Martin. He reminded me a little of the single light bulb in a really dark room you just had to walk through. When he was shining brightly you might be able to see the path through all the stuff in the room but the brightness wasn’t always available so sometimes you had to stumble over the stuff till the bulb came back on. And once in a while he seemed to be able to go so dark that he would suck every last photon of available light back into the bulb so no one could see where they were going.

Martin and I had our challenges, he inspired me, challenged me, frustrated me, he made me laugh, pissed me off, was generous to a fault, but mostly he showed us all something about being yourself, following your passions, and believing in people you care about.

Quentin: a most elegant, heartfelt and beautiful tribute.

I never met Martin and spoke with him just once when I was in the process of joining Newnham Research (aka DisplayLink), but I came to know and to appreciate a good number of his friends. The anecdotes they told me about Martin, and the special quality of each of them, gave me a measure of a man who could gather and energize such a group of people. I do regret not having personally known Martin, a good man with a big heart and grand perspectives.

I have known Martin for a number of years. Although I have heard stories about how challenging Martin could be, I never really experienced that side of his personality. What I have known was Martin’s continual support and sympathy for the cause I was (and still am) deeply involved in: the suffering of a powerful country denying a much weaker country’s population essential life-supporting needs to further a political agenda. My first contact with Martin was years ago over the U.S. maintaining UN sanctions on Iraq. But I learn from Sami Awad’s entry above — and I know Sami and deeply admire his nonviolent struggle in Bethlehem — that Martin’s support extended to the Palestinian people (and in this regard I’d assume he’d object to the Israeli blockade of goods into Gaza as well).

It was Martin who pushed me to create a blog when I was still living in the relative dark ages of writing just op-eds. (BertOnIraq.blogspot.com) And it was Martin who invited me down one day to talk with a new worker at his company; Martin wanted me to explain to this young worker what I’d been doing — and why. What many sides this human, Martin King, had to his being. Some of those sides were just so wonderful. I have been fortunate to know him and be supported by him. Many blessings on you, Martin! May you rest in that Peace beyond understanding.

Quentin,
Thank you so much for your wonderful tribute to Martin. He spoke of you often. I know, as I’m sure you do, how much he loved your relationship. I share your loss.

Martin’s Memorial Service:

The memorial will be held on Sunday Oct 10th at 11a.m. until 2 p.m. on Vashon Island at:

Common House
Vashon Co-Housing
10421 S. W. Bank Road
Vashon, WA

If you are coming from Seattle, exit the ferry, drive straight ahead to Vashon (4.7 miles from ferry) (The main intersection in Vashon is Bank Road and Vashon Highway SW) Turn right on Bank Road. Vashon Co-Housing is .4 miles on the left.

I had the good fortune and the corresponding “challenges” of working with Martin as well. In addition to helping create the global giving circle Pangea, Martin was instrumental in launching the Better, Safer World Campaign, an effort of 12 or 13 of the leading NGOs to articulate their common vision of what, post September 11, would build a more just world and a lasting peace. This effort eventually merged with the ONE Campaign, and is active still today. He also launched the FirstHand Foundation, an effort to stimulate global philanthropic travel–an effort that lives on in different forms as well.

From reading the messages in this string, it sounds like all of us who worked closely with Martin shared the joys and the challenges. Despite all, Martin was one of the most generous, kind and hopeful souls I have had the privilege of knowing.

Peter Blomquist

Thank you so much for writing this up Quentin. My time at Exbiblio was brief, but even then it was amazing and inspiring to see and experience Martin’s genuine warmth, generosity, and energy.

I was hired by Martin in the early days of Tegic.

Martin was both impossible to work for because he had such high expectations for himself and others, and at the same time was the most inspiring person I worked for, for exactly the same reason.

Passionate, intense, driven and a true visionary whom I consider to have been my mentor.

I will always remember him fondly. He is still an inspiration for me.

I feel honored to have known Martin and worked so closely with him over the last 10+ years. There are many fond memories of time spent with Martin and lots of great Martin stories too. Here is one . . .

I first met Martin in 1997 when I traveled to Seattle on a two week consulting assignment from my home in Denver. It was clear within the first few minutes of meeting Martin that he was a rare guy with a very big brain and some very exciting ideas. At that time, Martin and Cliff’s little company was called Aiki (later named Tegic) and the clever text input product in the works was called JustType. Their product solved a problem that had existed since the beginning of the mobile phone industry – how to efficiently type on a telephone keypad without pulling your hair out. I was immediately smitten with the brilliance of the invention, but even more enamored by Martin’s passion to create a truly unique company with a heart and a culture of doing good in the world.

I signed up to lead sales and marketing charge, went back to Denver, loaded all my belongings on a moving truck and said a temporary goodbye to Atousa (then my girlfriend and now my wife). On my first day on the job, Martin and I had a disagreement about something. We butted heads and neither one of was willing to compromise. Martin said he did not think things were going to work out and proceeded to fire me. I could not believe it. All I could think about was that moving van in route and what I was going to tell Atousa. I went into Bill Valenti’s office and told him that Martin had just fired me. Bill chuckled and said, “relax, that happens all the time around here . . . just get back to work.”

Long after the great success of Tegic, I would remind Martin that he fired me on my first day on the job. He would always laugh and say, “yeah, I should have really done it when I had the chance.” Martin had a great sense of humor and we shared a lot of laughs together.

Martin was frustrating to work with at times. He was stubborn. He was impatient. He expected more from people that they often could deliver. Among his numerous brilliant ideas he also generated a volume of bad ideas the rest of us often had to sort through. In Martin’s case the plus column far outweighed the negative. I always thought that it must have been difficult for Martin to always be the smartest one in the room. To see things that others just cannot see. Maybe that is a definition of a tortured soul. It was a unique opportunity to be a involved in Martin’s visions, passions and generosity. Martin helped all of us view everyday challenges and big world problems through a different lens. I feel blessed that my path in life crossed his.

We miss you Martin.

Don Davidge

Q – thank you for breaking the ice and saying what was in our hearts and in our heads.
Martin could ask “WHY?” better than anyone I ever met. However, sometimes those “why”s would challenge comfortably held beliefs. He was by far the most inspiring inventor I ever worked with, while still being the most frustrating client I ever had (in a good way). The world did not have to stay at the status quo in his eyes, it could always be improved. Unfortunately that sometimes meant trampling on someone else’s beautiful status quo.
One of my fondest memories of Martin was brainstorming with him in the back of a taxi in Palo Alto on what a world might look like where everyone could share what they read. It was amazing to see how Martin could take seeds and pull them together to create new futures.
Martin had many touch-and-go moments after he was diagnosed, and we actually had a “good bye coffee” years ago when both of us never expected to meet again. Luckily we were both wrong and we got to meet multiple times since.
There is an empty space now where Martin’s challenges are missed. I hope all his other friends keep some of his energy alive by challenging the world to be a better place.

September 16, 2011. I visited with Martin today on Vashon Island. He is resting next to his favorite cat, Elliot, amidst a garden of flowers. I miss him. I worry that the world is not as good a place withouth Martin. I know that he would be bending every fibre of his being to help save us all from ourselves. Martin was a leader from within. And I can only hope that those of us that knew and loved him are up to the task of leading from within ourselves.

With best wishes to the extended Martin King Fan Club and Family.

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