Top 50 Tech Visionaries
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
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
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.
1. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce
Unlike most of the other multiperson entries on our list, Robert Noyce
2. Sergey Brin and Larry Page
What is the defining contribution to technology made by Larry Page (left)
Bill Gates (#3) to Shawn Fanning (#10)
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
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 (left) and Bill Hewlett,
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
Gordon Moore (#11) to Michael Dell (#18)
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
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
13. Steve Case
Don't laugh. The brainchild of
14. Martin Cooper
Quick, check your pockets. Whether you're toting an iPhone, a Razr, or an
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)
16. Vint Cerf
Turing Award. National Medal of Technology. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Vint Cerf has one of the most impressive r
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.
Alan Kay (#19) to Grace Murray Hopper (#26)
19. Alan Kay
19. Alan Kay
A jack-of-all-tech-trades, Alan Kay lays claim to at least two watershed innovations, starting with
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
21. Linus Torvalds
Given the exorbitant cost of most Apple computers, Linus Torvalds is the godfather of what may be the last, best hope for an affordable alternative to Windows. The Linux operating system has been in continuous development
22. Chuck Thacker
Chuck Thacker has had his hands in a surprisingly wide array of tech projects, from the development of ethernet to the first laser printers. His most enduring legacy, however, involves a product that never reached market: The fabled Xerox Alto. The Alto, which Thacker designed, was the first computer with a GUI (and a mouse); as the story goes, it directly inspired Apple to build the Macintosh after Steve Jobs
23. Bob Metcalfe
Moore's Law may be better known, but the law formulated by Bob Metcalfe has wider general application. Posited around 1980, Metcalfe's Law conjectured that the value of a telecommunications network is equal to the square of the number of nodes on the network. In other words, even a small increase in the size of a network makes it worth far more because of the enlarged number of new connections that each user can make. Metcalfe's invention of ethernet and his founding of 3Com are essential tech milestones as well, but his eponymous law--now in use to quantify value in the Facebook/MySpace milieu--will be around long after wired networking has passed on.
24. Vic Hayes
Wi-Fi has long been one of technology's messiest standards--and without Vic Hayes, it might never have come together at all. In the Hayes-less universe
25. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston
Accounting departments around the world would be lost without the work of Dan Bricklin (left)
26. Grace Murray Hopper
That's Admiral Hopper, bud. Naval officer "Amazing" Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer who cut her teeth in the calculator era. Later she worked on the team that developed the UNIVAC, the world's first commercial computer, and wrote the compiler software for it (the first such software ever developed). Hopper was instrumental again in the development of the COBOL and FORTRAN programming languages, and she remained a major figure on the technology scene until her death in 1992. Even our language owes a debt to Hopper: She popularized (and possibly coined) the term "bug" after a moth was found in a computer relay during her years at Harvard.
(#27) to Karlheinz Brandenburg  and James D. Johnston (#34)
27. Jeff Hawkins
Portable computing was shaped in large part by Jeff Hawkins, who invented the acclaimed PalmPilot, and then
28. Fujio Masuoka
If anything is positioned to challenge the dominance of Al Shugart's hard drive (see #33 below), it's Flash memory--an invention of Fujio Masuoka. Masuoka developed solid-state storage during his tenure at Toshiba (Masuoka says that the company initially tried to demote him after he came up with the technology). The technology is now seen as a possible
29. Jonathan Ive
Aside from its showman/CEO Steve Jobs, Apple tends to keep its employees out of the limelight, but Apple VP and design guru Jonathan Ive has broken that mold. That's appropriate, since he broke another mold too, killing off the beige boxes and bricklike pocket gizmos that had become standard-issue in the tech industry. Ive's designs for the original iMac and for the iPod got people thinking about tech products as fashion accessories and decorative items instead of as impersonal and purely utilitarian objects.
Long scorned by Wall Street, Amazon.com--the creation of Jeff Bezos--is today
31. Meg Whitman
A longtime Hasbro marketing executive, Meg Whitman went from the child's toy box to the grown-up's as CEO of eBay. Whitman joined the online auction site
32. Bill Joy
A legend in tech circles, Bill Joy was chief scientist for Sun Microsystems for over 20 years, where he oversaw numerous critical technology advances, the most important of which was
33. Al Shugart
You're probably using a
Who says grad school is all impractical theory?
(#35) to Alan Emtage with  Bill Heelan and Mike Parker (#42)
35. Ann Winblad
Half of the well-known Hummer Winblad Venture Partners investment group, Ann Winblad was a key figure in the Web 1.0 boom, investing in such proto-companies as Napster, Gazoontite, Liquid Audio, and Pets.com. Despite some ill-fated investments, Hummer Winblad picked enough winners to remain a lead investor in dozens of tech companies, primarily back-end enterprises. And lest you think that Winblad is
36. Charles Simonyi
Charles Simonyi (plus a little Gatesian muscle, natch) is the reason you use Word and Excel instead of WordPerfect and Quattro Pro. As head of Microsoft's application development group, Simonyi oversaw development of both Word and Excel back in the MS-DOS days and superintended the app suite for more than 20 years. The programs are now as close to ubiquitous as Windows itself (perhaps even closer, since Office is the standard app suite for the Mac as well). Fun facts to know and tell: Simonyi was the second Hungarian in space in space and is Martha Stewart's boyfriend.
37. Thomas Penfield Jackson
Few people would have imagined that it a 62-year-old man unaffiliated with the company would have the most profound effect on Microsoft in years. But in 1999
This unassuming twosome got their start in 1994 while still at Stanford, with a truly humble idea: Populate a directory with cool places that they had found on the then-infant World Wide Web. Yahoo was born on a lark but Jerry Yang (left) and David Filo helped it become one of the Web's top destinations: Today it is the home page for millions of people seeking the easiest entry point into the Internet. After an unfruitful turn with Hollywood insider Terry Semel at the helm, Yang retook the reins as CEO in June 2007. Yahoo is now coping with separate
39. Peter Norton
A Buddhist monk before becoming invovled in the tech world, Peter Norton has been a major figure in the computer industry for three decades, having made his mark early in the DOS era with Norton Utilities, the first major data recovery tool for the PC. Norton went on to produce a gaggle of related utilities for the PC and write a series of essential technical manuals before selling his company to Symantec in 1990. Symantec still uses his name on its utility apps.
40. Phil Zimmermann
Phil Zimmermann fought the law so you don't have to. His Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) application, the first mainstream encryption software, published in 1991, made Zimmermann a pariah in the eyes of the U.S. government. The feds spent three years investigating the possibility that Zimmermann had violated rules forbidding the export of cryptographic tools. The case was ultimately dropped, however, paving the way for everyday people to protect the material on their hard drives and in their e-mail with the same encryption standards that the government itself uses.
41. Jon Postel
How do you move from one IP address to another? Easily, thanks to Jon Postel, the so-called Father of DNS--the system that translates 184.108.40.206 into http://www.pcworld.com/. Postel also did substantial work on the TCP/IP and SMTP protocols, authoring some 200 Internet spec documents overall. But Postel didn't just envision the DNS system; he ran it himself for years as founding head of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (a position that led him into a
42. Alan Emtage with
Before Google--before the Web even--people had to find a way to locate files and programs hiding out on FTP servers around the world. The answer: Archie (a derivative of "archive"), a 1990 application devised by McGill University student Alan Emtage, who was assisted by Bill Heelan and Mike Parker. In its original incarnation, Archie contacted far-off FTP servers regularly and kept a local list of the files they contained, for easy indexing. That may sound like simple stuff by today's standards, but it inspired everything about the way we currently work with search, from the Web to the desktop.
Trip Hawkins (#43) to Udi Manber (#50)
43. Trip Hawkins
43. Trip Hawkins
Electronic Arts is one of the few pure software companies that continues to be important 25 years after its founding--and it wouldn't have existed at all if not for gaming pioneer Trip Hawkins, a Harvard and Stanford grad and Apple alumnus who
Political insider Arianna Huffington has had a major influence on technology, but one that
45. Susan Kare
Another Macintosh 1.0 innovator, Susan Kare worked behind the scenes, but came up with essential innovations. Her earliest achievement was designing the typefaces--and
46. Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Sure, give Arthur C. Clarke credit for inspiring the minds of thousands of technology pioneers. But Clarke didn't just write seminal works of science fiction (including 2001: A Space Odyssey
); he also conceived of geostationary communications satellites (satellites that
47. Herbie Hancock
When Herbie Hancock
48. William Gibson
The king of cyberpunk, William Gibson, has dreamed up all manner of high-minded techno wizardry, some of which has actually started to come true. His early stories introduced the term "cyberspace" and the visualization concepts behind it, which in turn prompted people to start thinking about networks in a way that transcended text and a command line. We may not be plugging chips directly into our brains yet, but Gibson's fiction-based prophecies have a strange way of panning out.
49. Gary Kildall
Called "The Man Who Could Have Been Bill Gates" by BusinessWeek,
50. Udi Manber
If there is a search engine anywhere that doesn't have the thumbprint of Udi Manber on it, we don't know about it. From Yahoo to Amazon's A9 to Google, Manber has been one of the search business's greatest contributors. But Manber's work goes back even farther than that, to AltaVista. He was a key member of the design team on what many feel was the best engine running until Google came along.
Christopher Null writes regularly for PC World and blogs about technology daily at tech.yahoo.com.