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Top 50 Tech Visionaries

By Christopher Null, PC World
May 20, 2008 09:07 AM ET

PC World - 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.

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