The story goes that when computer scientist Alan Kay began walking out of a banquet room in 2004 with the A.M. Turing Award he had just been given for his breakthrough work on object-oriented programming, he was stopped by someone who thought he was absconding with a table ornament instead of his "Nobel Prize in Computing."
Perhaps the incident involving the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) top prize reflects a general lack of awareness of one of the highest honors in high-tech circles. But don't feel too badly - most of computer and telecom technology's top engineers, theoreticians and entrepreneurs are actually rewarded quite well and frequently, even if the prizes they receive aren't as recognizable as entertainment, literary and sports honors such as the Oscars, Pulitzer Prize, Heisman Trophy and even the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Gold medals, millions of dollars in cash and hall of fame plaques are doled out annually to technology and tech business stalwarts, especially those whose inventions have had lasting impact and contributed to the betterment of society (See our timeline of awards announced/presented in 2011). Tim Berners-Lee can even use the title "Sir" after receiving honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for "services to the global development of the Internet."
Jim Horning, an accomplished computer scientist who serves as co-chair of the ACM's Awards Committee, says such honors are important for several reasons.
"They do give visibility to the person and the field to the larger public," he says. "It also gives people in the field something to aspire to and gives younger people in the field pointers at 'Here are the people who built the field; here's the work you should be looking at.'"
Vint Cerf, one of the "Fathers of the Internet" and a frequent award winner, agrees such awards are important, especially in terms of getting recognition from peers. He only wishes there was a way to make the awards and achievements more visible to the general population so as to show young people that careers in science and technology are really rewarding and worth pursuing.
"In many cases, the work of award recipients is pretty abstract or technically sophisticated and might need some interpretation to help the general public realize how important it is. I wish we had some way to make these figures as important to Americans as entertainment and sports stars seem to be," he says. "Of course, the entertainment and sports stars are constantly in the public eye and keep providing entertainment to the general public over the course of long careers. The winners of science and technology prizes and recognitions continue to produce, but their work isn't usually very visible to the general public except when these singular awards are made and even then, they are quickly forgotten."
Next best thing to a Nobel?
While there is no formal Nobel Prize in Computing or Technology (See: "Why there's no Nobel Prize in Computing"), the Nobel Prize in Physics did go to "father of fiber-optic communications" Charles Kao in 2009 and the Internet itself is said to be a nominee for this year's Peace Prize in light of its role in anti-government movements in Egypt and elsewhere.
Then there are honors like the Turing Award (given out since 1966 and accompanied by a prize of $250,000) and Marconi Prize (presented since 1975 and including a $100,000 honorarium) whose supporting organizations frequently refer to them as "Nobel Prizes in..." and are happy when others do the same. Winners of the Turing Award have included Internet creators Cerf and Robert Kahn, "father of the computer mouse" Doug Engelbart and the three security whizzes behind the RSA algorithm (Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman). Marconi Prizes have gone to people such as the late packet-switching pioneer Paul Baran, wireless technology innovator Andrew Viterbi and writer/futurist Arthur C. Clarke.
Technology Academy Finland, not to be entirely overshadowed by Sweden's Nobel Foundation, began awarding what it calls "the world's largest technology prize" in 2004. The inaugural Millennium Technology Prize, worth some $1 million, went to Worldwide Web mastermind Berners-Lee.
Other huge honors that have been bestowed upon tech luminaries include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (IBM President Thomas Watson, Jr., got one in 1964 and Internet creators Cerf and Kahn were honored in 2005) and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation - both of which are doled out by the U.S. president. Another big one: the National Academy of Engineering's $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize (See slideshow: "A whirlwind tour of technology's top awards and honors, from the Medal of Technology and Innovation to the Inventors Hall of Fame"). The IEEE honors engineering standouts with its highest tribute, the IEEE Medal of Honor, but also with dozens of other medals and prizes, including the John von Neumann Medal.
What's more, techie Halls of Fame have sprouted up - some physical, some virtual - including the newly renovated Computer History Museum's Hall of Fellows, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the WITI Hall of Fame, which honors top women in technology. (Network World sister publication CIO also honors chief information officers annually through its Hall of Fame.) Loads of regional tech halls of fame exist as well.
Organizations that dish out annual awards naturally have systems down for collecting nominations, sometimes from the public (as does the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, with its Pioneer Awards, and the Computer History Museum). The decision-making processes can take months.
Awards pile up for some
One thing that becomes quickly apparent when perusing the list of tech awards winners is that some of the biggest names have won multiple awards (though one award organization overseer noted you'd see even more multiple winners if not for some nominees begging off because of award-fatigue. ... Steve Jobs, for example, doesn't show up as frequently on these lists as you might think he would, though he and Apple cohort Steve Wozniak won a National Medal of Technology in 1985).
Internet pioneers Cerf and Kahn would probably have to add on to their homes to house any more awards (see: "Web, Internet inventors clean up on awards"). Both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005 and the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 2007. Both also have picked up the Marconi Prize, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize (along with fellow Internet visionaries Leonard Kleinrock and Larry Roberts) and the EFF's Pioneer Award. They're also both in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Computer History Museum's Hall of Fellows. (Cerf has run out of room to display any more plaques, etc., though says he proudly showcases many of his honors, including medals and the Joan Miro sculpture that came with his 2002 Prince of Asturias Award for technical and scientific research.)
Separately, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been honored many times over, not just for his technology and business acumen, but of late for his philanthropy. While some might say Gates is no Boy Scout, the Boy Scouts of America's awarded him its Sliver Buffalo award in 2010 for distinguished service, too. Gates is an example of a tech and business innovator, the sort of person that award organizations say are likely to be recognized more frequently in the future, beyond the pure technologists and engineers that some award outfits have focused on to date.
Another multiple awards winner is Bob Metcalfe, the Ethernet inventor who went on to co-found 3Com, and later joined venture capital firm Polaris Venture Partners and became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He still appreciates getting recognized for his networking breakthrough: "No, it never gets old getting awards for the same accomplishment, in my case Ethernet, now 38 years old."
Asked what he does with all those awards, Metcalfe responded: "Most of my awards are on the walls of our big townhouse [in Boston], especially up the back stair. But we are moving to a small condo in Texas, so where will they go now?"
John Hollar, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum, says it's inevitable that some innovators will be awarded over and over, but that the museum doesn't take that into consideration in choosing its fellows: "These individuals are the geniuses behind so many things that are indispensible for us now. It's completely appropriate that they be recognized."
The museum further honors the legacy of its fellows by recording oral histories with honorees, including in HD video in recent years. "Anyone today would love to have seen Albert Einstein talk for four hours, but we can't get that now," Hollar says. "Twenty-five or 30 years from now Linus Torvalds or Vint Cerf may be as sought after for how they looked or sounded on camera as the subject of interviews. Oral histories of our fellows is a very important part of capturing history and preserving it for the future." (See video below of Torvalds, Metcalfe and Jean Bartik, an original programmer for the ENIAC machine, being inducted into the Computer History Museum Hall of Fellows.)
In addition to acknowledging the accomplishments of those with a lifetime of achievement, organizations that grant awards have also taken steps to recognize up and comers in the field, as well as award a more diverse selection of the population. The $250,000 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences, for example, "recognizes personal contributions by young scientists and system developers to a contemporary innovation that, through its depth, fundamental impact and broad implications, exemplifies the greatest achievements in the discipline." The Marconi Society, with funding from Marconi Fellow Rivest, began in 2008 recognizing students at U.S. universities with Young Scholar Awards designed to connect them with established technology mentors and to encourage them to stay in the field.
Winners of most of the big awards have overwhelmingly been male, though the Turing Award has twice gone to women (IBM's Frances Allen and MIT's Barbara Liskov) and the WITI Hall of Fame specifically recognizes women in technology.
With organizations such as the ACM and IEEE growing their memberships, Horning says there no doubt will be many new awards down the road to address fields that might not even exist today. And that might present the last frontier of recognition to those innovators whose trophy shelves are already creaking under the weight of their winnings: Awards named after them.