On the short, tormented life of Phil Katz

Bless the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine. With it, we can go back in time and read The short, tormented life of computer genius Phil Katz, an unusually detailed and accurate article published in the April 14, 2000 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

When he was found dead April 14, Phil Katz was slumped against a nightstand in a south side hotel, cradling an empty bottle of peppermint schnapps. The genius who built a multimillion-dollar software company known worldwide for its pioneering “zip” files had died of acute pancreatic bleeding caused by chronic alcoholism. He was alone, estranged long ago from his family and a virtual stranger to employees of his own company, PKWare Inc. He was 37.

In the late 80s, when the culmination of Katz’s work on compression algorithms, PKZIP, emerged as the clear winner of the so-called “compressors war,” I was running my own little BBS, Lorien, which later evolved into Phoenix BBS, a fully-fledged FidoNet node. When Lorien went first online in 1987, most if not all downloadables were in ARC format. Three years later, in 1990, when Phoenix emerged from Lorien’s ashes, ZIP archives ruled the world. Fast forward 30 years. A couple of days ago, I wrote C# code that receives data streams over a REST API and then stores them as ZIP files.

I would be hard-pressed to find another piece of shareware, single-handly developed software that has been as influential, pervasive, and widespread in the industry as PKZIP from PKWare. Of course, Linux and SQLite, although both came later (the former in 1991, the latter in the spring of 2000.)

Katz’s story is indeed a cautionary tale of genius, torment, and horrible demise. I cannot help but wonder: would his life trajectory have been different had he not been so successful? Probably not, given the details revealed in the article, but who knows. For sure, the tormented story of Phil Katz leaves me with one clear takeaway. Success does not grant happiness.

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