Top 50 Tech Visionaries

Bill Gates (#3) to Shawn Fanning (#10)

Bill Gates
Photograph: Courtesy of Microsoft
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

Steve Jobs
Photograph: Courtesy of Apple
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

Tim Berners-Lee
Photograph: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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

Ray Tomlinson
Photograph: Courtesy of BBN.com
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

Douglas Engelbart
Photograph: Courtesy of The Bootstrap Institute
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

Dave Packard (left) and Bill Hewlett
Photograph: Courtesy of Hewlett-Packard
No company has touched so many facets of technology as the brainchild of Dave Packard (left) 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

Shigeru Miyamoto
Photograph: Courtesy of Makoto Mishida
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

Shawn Fanning
Photograph: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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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