The 21 Most Important Names In Computing History You've Never Heard

dennis ritchie ken thompson

Photo: Knullen

When you look at the modern laptop, it’s pretty easy to forget how far computing has come. Being skilled with a computer is entirely mainstream and almost essential for our daily lives.But imagine what it was like 50 years ago. Computing was a fledgling branch of technology reserved for weirdos with beards. It was the Wild West, and the rules were being made up as we went along.

So many people helped shape it into what it is now. We all know the big names — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the like.

But let’s not forget the lesser-known people. Someone had to create the first spreadsheet software — who was it? Someone had to invent the mouse — where’s that guy? And someone had to write the first dirty computer game.

Howard Aiken

Aiken was the original conceptual designer behind the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944. It was an electromechanical computer that was used to make calculations for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships, and was much more accurate than previous computers.

Many people have suggested that the Mark I's introduction was the beginning of the era of the modern computer.

Grace Murray Hopper

Hopper coined the term 'debugging' in 1947 after removing an actual moth from a computer. Her ideas about machine-independent programming led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages.

On top of it all, the Navy destroyer USS Hopper is named after her.

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie

These guys invented Unix in 1969, the importance of which CANNOT be overstated. Consider this: your fancy Apple computer relies almost entirely on their work.

Doug and Gary Carlston

This team of brothers co-founded Brøderbund Software, a successful gaming company that operated from 1980-1999. In that time, they were responsible for churning out or marketing revolutionary computer games like Myst and Prince of Persia, helping bring computing into the mainstream.

Ken and Roberta Williams

This husband and wife team founded On-Line Systems in 1979, which later became Sierra Online. The company was a leader in producing graphical adventure games throughout the advent of personal computing.

Charles Benton

He wrote the first naughty computer game in 1981!

The woman pictured on the far right is Roberta Williams, co-founder of Sierra Online from the previous slide.

Seymour Cray

Cray was a supercomputer architect whose computers were the fastest in the world for many decades. He set the standard for modern supercomputing.

Marvin Minsky

Minsky was a professor at MIT and oversaw the AI Lab, a hotspot of hacker activity, where he let prominent programmers like Richard Stallman run free. Were it not for his open-mindedness, programming skill, and ability to recognise that important things were taking place, the AI Lab wouldn't be remembered as the talent incubator that it is.

Bob Albrecht

He founded the People's Computer Company and developed a sincere passion for encouraging children to get involved with computing. He's responsible for ushering in innumerable new young programmers and is one of the first modern technology evangelists.

Steve Dompier

At a time when computer speech was just barely being realised, Dompier made his computer sing. It was a trick he unveiled at the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975.

John Draper

Though he's probably better known in some circles as 'Captain Crunch,' John Draper is legendary figure in the computer programming world. Using the tone produced by a toy whistle that came in boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal in the 1970s, he was able to hack phone systems and call around the world for free, becoming a pioneer of 'phreaking.'

Briefly employed by Apple, Draper coded EasyWriter, the first word processor for the Apple II.

Lee Felsenstein

Felsenstein was one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club and designed the Osborne I, the first mass-produced personal computer (it was a commercial success as well).

John McCarthy

McCarthy invented Lisp, the second-oldest high level programming language that's still in use to this day. He's also responsible for bringing mathematical logic into the world of artificial intelligence -- letting computers 'think' by way of maths.

Ed Roberts

He founded Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems in 1970 as a means to sell electronics kits to model rocketry hobbyists, but he'll be most remembered for inventing the Altair 8800, a do-it-yourself personal computer kit that sold like crazy.

His creation is so widely recognised as being a major spark to the microcomputer revolution that he is remembered as 'the father of personal computing.'

Richard Greenblatt

Greenblatt is often considered a father of the hacker community -- his interests in chess and programming led him to develop Mac Hack, the first computer software to play chess.

Artificial intelligence sceptic Hubert Dreyfus loudly proclaimed that computers would never play quality chess. He was handily beaten by Greenblatt's program.

Doug Engelbart

Engelbart is most noted for inventing the computer mouse in the mid-1960s, but he's made numerous other contributions to the computing world. He created early GUIs and was even a member of the team that developed the now-ubiquitous hypertext.

Ivan Sutherland

Sutherland received the prestigious Turing Award in 1988 for inventing Sketchpad, the predecessor to the type of graphical user interfaces we use every day on our own computers.

Tim Paterson

He wrote QDOS, an operating system that he sold to Bill Gates in 1980. Gates rebranded it as MS-DOS, selling it to the point that it became the most widely-used operating system of the day.

Dan Bricklin

He's 'The Father of the Spreadsheet.'

Working in 1979 with Bob Frankston, he created VisiCalc, a predecessor to Microsoft Excel. It was the killer app of the time -- people were buying computers just to run VisiCalc.

Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf

Prolific internet pioneers, these two teamed up to build the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol, better known as TCP/IP. These are the fundamental communication technologies at the heart of the Internet.

Niklaus Wirth

Wirth designed several programming languages, but is best known for creating Pascal.

He won a Turing Award in 1984 for 'developing a sequence of innovative computer languages.'

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