Martin Alexander, 74: Shy genius helped create era of ‘smart’ machines

Martin Alexander built a beautiful life for himself by building computer programs. Alexander especially relished challenges related to cybersecurity, leading a former boss to call him “one of the best software engineers on the planet.”

Growing up as a boy in Atlanta, however, Alexander did not have computers to fascinate him and occupy his time. A shy, quiet boy, he turned his attention instead to mathematics while attending the Westminster Schools. He excelled in math and attended Princeton, studying in the mathematics department when celebrated mathematician and later Nobel laureate John Nash was on the faculty.

Several people who knew them both found similarities between Alexander and Nash, said a niece of Alexander’s. Relationships did not come easily for Alexander, but numbers did.

“He was gentle, and kind and shy,” said Alice Alexander of Atlanta. “He was a nerd’s nerd before being a nerd was even a tiny bit cool.”

Alexander returned to Atlanta after graduating from Princeton. He attended Georgia Tech, earning a master’s degree in computer science. He then worked at Tech as a computer programmer. On a trip to San Francisco with his mother, he met a beautiful woman in a bookstore who would later become his wife.

“What attracted me to my husband was his honesty and his kindness,” said Brigitte Alexander. “He was not gregarious at all.”

The couple lived briefly in Atlanta after they wed, but Brigitte found the heat and humidity stifling. They moved back to California and remained there.

Martin Daniel Alexander died March 6 at his home in Santa Rosa at age 74 from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was the son of the late Margaret Weiner Alexander and William Daniel Alexander of Atlanta.

Alexander’s life focused on computers. He agreed to play tennis with his wife but stopped after she wanted to play every day, said Brigitte Alexander. The couple bought a camper to travel up the west coast, but Alexander agreed to do so only if they could spend one night in the camper alternating with one night in a motel.

“He said he’d had enough of camping when he was in the Reserves,” said Brigitte, referring to Alexander’s stint in the U.S. Army Reserves. He served as a code-breaker and code writer, said his niece.

Because his mind was often on math, he sometimes had difficulty following orders, his niece said.

Once, Alexander was made to peel potatoes because he failed to follow an order properly.

“He took four hours to peel potatoes,” said Alice Alexander. It wasn’t out of spite or rebelliousness, said his niece. “His mind was elsewhere,” she said.

He never had to peel potatoes again, she said.

Alexander returned to Atlanta and his life of mathematics.

He and Brigitte had a daughter, Ada, naming her after Ada Lovelace, the woman many people consider to be the first computer programmer.

As Ada grew up, her mother wanted to expose the girl to opera, music and other arts.

“He trotted along with us to celebrations and concerts,“ said Brigitte Alexander. “Sometimes his mind wasn’t there, but he was there.”

Ada grew up to share a love of math and of computers with her father, which pleased him mightily.

“Martin was one of the best software engineers on the planet,” said John Mullen, CEO of Promia, a national software cybersecurity firm.

Promia COO Thatcher Robinson said Alexander “loved to sort chaos into neat columns.”

“He told me he loved to do math because it was clean and beautiful,” his wife said.

Alexander built a program able to recognize and validate signatures. He designed and built a system capable of making new computer languages. Alexander’s work in microprocessing electronics helped to usher in the era of “smart” machines.

The last years of his life, Alexander often worked sitting up in bed, his breathing aided by an oxygen tank.

Survivors include his wife, Brigitte D. Alexander, daughter Ada Alexander, both of Santa Rosa, Calif., and niece Alice Alexander of Atlanta, and two nephews, Michael J. Alexander of Atlanta and William Alexander of Lexington, Mass.