It’s easy to look at a laptop, an iPod, or a laser printer as nothing more than a tool to get work done with or to while away your free time on, but these and many other high-tech devices didn’t fall off a tree. They emerged following years of hard work–and in some cases, an entire career devoted to a single technology–by inspired researchers, designers, and developers.
Our list of technology visionaries includes the guy who invented a way to store data in a portable form–and who almost got demoted as a result. It recognizes the woman who popularized the term “bug” after a moth flew into a computer relay. And it acknowledges a genius who might have saved modern gaming by inventing Jump Man.
So it’s time to pay homage where homage is due. Here’s our take on the 50 most important people in the recent history of technology–the most critical players (including a few forgotten heroes) who’ve been instrumental in crafting the last 50 years of technical innovation.
Our opinion doesn’t have to be the last word on the subject, however. If you have additional nominees who deserve recognition, or if you want to chime in to agree with or reminisce about or rail against our choices, please add a comment to let us know.
1. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce
Unlike most of the other multiperson entries on our list, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby didn’t work together. But their common invention is still utterly crucial. In 1959, both men came up with the first integrated circuits–Kilby while he was at Texas Instruments, and Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor. The IC solved the problem of size that got worse and worse as the need to jam additional transistors into a device grew more and more critical. Packing them all into a single chip effectively ended the era of the room-size computer.
Ultimately, Noyce’s design based on silicon, rather than Kilby’s based on germanium, became the standard–one that we still use today–but both designs were instrumental in pushing the technology forward. Kilby and Noyce are often overlooked, but the importance of their contribution to technology cannot be overstated. Nothing else on this list could exist without the underpinning of the integrated circuit.
2. Sergey Brin and Larry Page
What is the defining contribution to technology made by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the fathers of Google? The company is the single most important business in Silicon Valley today, but of course search engines had existed long before Google came along.
What impressed so many early fans was Google’s relentless pursuit of refinement and accuracy in its search algorithm: Whereas other search engines’ results tended to be laden with spam, Google’s were generally on target. The company had lots of other tricks up its sleeve as well: The rapidly expanding Google universe now offers dozens of productivity and entertainment tools–from word processing to video–most of them free, underwritten by the company’s ubiquitous ad-serving system.
3. Bill Gates
The world’s richest man (well, depending on that day’s stock price) is also one of its most noteworthy technologists–a guy who dropped out of Harvard to launch Microsoft, a company that all techies are intimately familiar with, like it or not. No hands-off executive, Bill Gates has been involved with Microsoft product development at an incredibly detailed level over the company’s entire 30-year history.
Though he’ll continue to serve as the company’s chairman, Gates will effectively leave Microsoft this July to focus full-time on his nonprofit endeavor, the Gates Foundation, which he has endowed with an eye-popping $29 billion to support global health and learning. Critics love to caricature Gates as a ruthless corporate tyrant who rules the tech industry with an iron fist, but evidently he has a conscience and a social vision too.
4. Steve Jobs
The once and future King of Apple, Steve Jobs is familiar to even the most casual technophile. Jobs lays claim to two critical moments in tech history. First, with the original Apples, he pioneered the idea that computers belong in the home; and then, 20 years later, he convinced the world that people ought to carry their (digital) music with them everywhere they go.
Apple may not have invented the PC, and it certainly didn’t invent the MP3 player, but Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field” has proved that who got there first is sometimes less important than what they brought with them. Today, after more than one brush with corporate death, Apple is bigger than ever, boasting market share that the company hadn’t seen since the 1980s.
5. Tim Berners-Lee
No bones about it: You wouldn’t be reading this if not for Tim Berners-Lee and his 1989 invention, the World Wide Web. Everything from URL structure to hyperlinks were part of Berners-Lee’s original specifications; and though they’ve been extensively revised (in large part under his guidance as director of the World Wide Web Consortium), they remain in use today. Berners-Lee continues to be a key figure in the development of Web standards, and these days he spends his time developing what many think is the next step for the Internet: The Semantic Web.
6. Ray Tomlinson
In 1971 Ray Tomlinson sent the message that would ultimately be heard ’round the world: An e-mail from one ARPANet host to another. When you open your e-mail program and see that your inbox has 112 unread messages, you may not feel like thanking Tomlinson, but imagine where digital communications would be without e-mail. Tomlinson also came up with the idea of using the @ symbol to separate the username from the host name in an e-mail address.
7. Douglas Engelbart
Quick, click on this link. You now understand the importance of Doug Engelbart’s creation, the computer mouse. Engelbart patented the idea of his “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1967, and also nicknamed the device the mouse (owing to its tail).
Though it’s hard to imagine working without one now, the mouse didn’t catch on for more than a decade, until Apple computers started using them. Engelbart didn’t stop at one invention, either: He and his research lab also developed an early online storage system–and even demonstrated videoconferencing back in 1968.
8. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard
No company has touched so many facets of technology as the brainchild of Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, two titans of Silicon Valley who built a monster computing company out of nothing but spit and gumption.
Originally responsible for building audio oscillators for Walt Disney in the 1940s, HP went on to create all manner of test equipment for electronics before jumping into computer servers, desktops, calculators, cameras, and of course printers. After a few rocky years, HP is back on top as the largest technology company in the world. And what other people have had their garage turned into a national historic landmark?
9. Shigeru Miyamoto
The video game industry collapsed in the early 1980s, and for a while it looked as though the phenomenon would go down in history as just a quirky fad, like the pet rock.
But Shigeru Miyamoto almost singlehandedly kept the industry alive with his creation of an animated character named Jump Man, who soon became known as Mario. Miyamoto’s influence in the gaming business–he’s now a senior director of Nintendo–has been crucial ever since. His latest creation: Wii Fit, arrives on U.S. shores this month.
10. Shawn Fanning
With Napster, Shawn Fanning introduced the technology that, some doomsayers warn, could spell the end of the Internet. Today traffic from peer-to-peer programs consumes an estimated 70 percent of all broadband bandwidth, and AT&T says that peer-to-peer is a major reason why it will have to radically upgrade its infrastructure if it is to avert the collapse of the Internet as we know it by 2010. All of this because a guy was looking for an easier way to share a few tunes with strangers? Sheesh.
11. Gordon Moore
You can’t go wrong with a guy who’s got his own scientific law, can you? Moore’s Law, posited in 1965, three years before Gordon Moore founded a little company called Intel, predicted that the number of components on a computer chip would double every year (later, he amended it to every two years).
As Intel notes, Moore’s Law remains the “guiding principle for the semiconductor industry”; but, in truth, every field of high-tech–from hard drives to TVs–validates to some degree the almighty Law of Moore. Moore remains involved with Intel, which–at 40 years old–may be number one on the list of companies that Silicon Valley could not exist without.
12. Bill Atkinson
Mouse up to your PC’s File menu, open a new window, and thank Bill Atkinson for being able to do that. His early ideas regarding user interface design elements like the menu bar became graphical user interface standbys not just on Apple computers (where he worked), but on every major operating system that has followed. As a programmer, Atkinson designed MacPaint, QuickDraw, and HyperCard, a sort of proto-Web system that clearly inspired the creation of the World Wide Web. After starting his own company, General Magic, Atkinson mostly retired from tech to work as a nature photographer.
13. Steve Case
Don’t laugh. The brainchild of Steve Case, America Online was a big deal back in the early 1990s. The timing was perfect for a service that offered online training wheels for millions of intrigued but trepid people looking for an introduction to the World Wide Web.
AOL pioneered more than just the chat rooms for which it became infamous. Case launched Neverwinter Nights–one of the first MMOs (massively multiplayer online games)–was an early champion of user avatars, and (most notoriously) started the blending of online and big media by selling out to Time Warner in 2001. Not such great timing there, alas.
14. Martin Cooper
Quick, check your pockets. Whether you’re toting an iPhone, a Razr, or an enV, you owe a debt to Martin Cooper and his 1973 patent responsible for the mobile phone as we know it.
His invention, created during his tenure at Motorola, weighed just shy of 2 pounds, and ten years would pass before mobile phones broke the 1-pound barrier. Cooper is still active in the telephone business. His company ArrayComm develops antenna technology so today’s 2-ounce phones can reach their network.
15. Nolan Bushnell
Atari is synonymous with video gaming–so much so that the name remains in use (though now far removed from founder Nolan Bushnell, the undisputed father of video gaming) 36 years after it originated.
Bushnell’s inspiration–a world where everyone could play games in the comfort of their own home–is a rare instance where the vision panned out almost exactly as envisioned. Though no one is thrilling over Atari’s consoles any more, Atari and Bushnell paved the way for every video game platform that has followed.
16. Vint Cerf
Turing Award. National Medal of Technology. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vint Cerf has one of the most impressive résumés in technology. Cerf’s work as an Internet pioneer has largely taken place in universities and government agencies, which in the early 1970s led directly to the creation of ARPANet, the predecessor to today’s Internet. Cerf now works for–who else?–Google.
17. Don Estridge
IBM veteran Don Estridge is widely known as “the father of the PC,” at least in its Big Blue incarnation. Estridge developed a number of computer systems, even tinkering with NASA radar equipment.
But he is best known for his work as a manager–leading a “skunk works” staff of just 14 people that ultimately produced the IBM PC, an “open” platform that could run third-party software and accept third-party upgrades, that would become the standard for business. Tragically, Estridge died in a plane crash in 1985 and never saw his creation achieve ubiquity.
18. Michael Dell
The origin story of Dell Computer Corporation is so well-known it has become part of the canon of the tech business. Michael Dell started his company, PC’s Limited, at age 19 out of his dorm room at the University of Texas. Eventually he dropped out of school to found Dell Computer, which grew at breakneck pace throughout the 1990s.
Dell’s marketing philosophy turned the industry on its ear: Rather than offer predetermined configurations, Dell’s machines were totally customizable and built to order. Eventually almost every competing PC manufacturer followed suit–or went out of business.
19. Alan Kay
A jack-of-all-tech-trades, Alan Kay lays claim to at least two watershed innovations, starting with HP’s original Dynabook, one of the first usable mobile laptop computers.
Kay ideal was to design a laptop that weighed no more than 2 pounds. We still aren’t there yet, but Kay’s contributions to software–which include shepherding the idea of object-oriented programming and the notion of multiple, overlapping windows in a GUI–rank as essential milestones in computing.
20. Marc Andreessen
The Mosaic Web browser devised by Marc Andreessen may seem quaint now, but bits and pieces of Mosaic code remain standard software components of most of today’s commercial browsers.
It’s a safe bet that many of Andreessen’s other creations will leave similar legacies: Netscape, the company he founded, set off the tech stock craze of the 1990s, and his Ning Web site continues to grow in popularity as an outlet where anyone can build a topic-oriented social network. He even finds time to blog regularly about all this stuff.
Christopher Null writes regularly for PC World and blogs about technology daily at tech.yahoo.com.