Many of us have to look no further than the palms of our hands to realize the impact Brad Cox ’65 made on the world.
In the early 1980s, Cox, a Renaissance man who grew up on a dairy farm in Lake City, South Carolina, shut himself in his home office with a passel of computer equipment and emerged two weeks later with the programming language Objective-C. Cox’s company sold the language to Steve Jobs, who was running a company called NeXT during a moment of banishment from Apple. When Jobs went back to Apple, he took Objective-C with him; it became the basis for the Mac operating system and the root stock for Swift, the language used today in all Apple devices.
Cox passed away from complications with Parkinson’s on Jan. 2 at his home in Manassas, Virginia. He was 76. An extensive obituary appears on The NewStack, a media platform for the software industry.
As a boy, he was known far and wide for his snake connection. At Furman, he encountered his first computer, “a hand-cranked calculator in the chemistry department,” he says in a Computer History Museum video. “I enjoyed that thing, and practiced a lot.”
Cox majored in chemistry and math and went on to a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in mathematical biology, intrigued by discovering how the brain worked. He did a post-doctoral fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Dan Cox, Brad’s brother, who had a career in forestry management, says, “Brad got all the brains in the family.” He says Brad was mesmerized by computers. He thinks of his brother when he pulls up a spreadsheet on his phone.
Etta Glenn met Cox when he was playing in a bluegrass band at a festival. “I had a little Yorkie, and Brad walked up and said, in his Southern accent, ‘Sure is a cute little puppy you have there.’ That was all it took.” The couple married in 1976.
What made Cox special, Glenn says, was his 175 IQ. But he also had other interests. He played guitar and piano, the couple traveled extensively, and he loved being outdoors.
Maybe his real-world connections were what enabled Objective-C to be so successful for so long.
Objective-C was one of the first widely accepted object-oriented language, says Bryan Catron, an instructor in computer science at Furman, who taught the language in an app development May X class as recently as 2014. Swift, the language currently used to program iPhones, and Java, another popular programming language, are both rooted in Objective-C.
It offered a “much more conceptual view of the world,” Catron says. Pre-object-oriented languages were more fundamental. “If we were building a structure, with C you’d be talking about bricks. With an object-oriented language, we’re talking about rooms and hallways and stairs.”
With Objective-C, “you see the world as it is,” Catron says. That was a new ability that led to desktop interfaces that allow users to manipulate computer files as they would real files.
Glenn, who has a master’s degree in computer information systems, says the advancement “set the world on its ear.” Cox was invited to give talks about his development all over the world, and Glenn went along.
Cox’s business partner and mentor, Tom Love, presented Objective-C to Steve Jobs. Jobs had been ousted from Apple and had created a new computer, NeXT. Jobs used Objective-C in NeXT, and took the technology with him when he went back to Apple.
The ubiquity of iPhones and Macs throughout the world might suggest a proportionate share of riches to Cox for his early development. In fact, Glenn says Jobs offered to license Objective-C to NeXT for $5 per future unit sold. But the members of the board of Cox’s company were eager to see a return on their investment, so they demanded a cash price that would prove relatively small.
Glenn says Cox “never recovered” from that deal, leaving him a little deflated. Surely he saw the potential. From 2007 through 2018, more than 1.46 billion iPhones were sold worldwide; in the second quarter of 2020, Apple sold more iPhones in the U.S. than ever: 15 million.
Still, Cox realized his work was something special. In a 2011 interview with MacTech magazine, writer Dave Dribin asks Cox, “So Apple’s sold something like 30 million iPods and iPhones? How does it feel to have Objective-C running in the palm of so many people’s hands?”
Cox laughs. “Yeah, it’s pretty nice,” he says.