Top 10 most important people in the history of computers

Published 
7 May 2010
Steve Jobs

These people influenced and created the world of computers that we know and love today

It's hard to imagine a world without computers, so reliant on them we've become. What makes this more surprising is that computers, although considered and thought about for a long time, have only recently (in terms of history) been available. The profound impact they've had on our lives, both directly and indirectly with the inventions and technologies they've helped create, make them one of the most important inventions in human history. This week we've rounded up the ten most important people in the history of computers. We've listed them in rough chronological order, so that numbering's not really important and there are bound to be some people that we've had to miss off the list.

10. Charles Babbage (26 December 1791 - 18 October 1871)

Charles Babbage first came up with the idea of a mechanical computer after seeing how numerical tables calculated by humans (called computers) had a high-degree of error. He decided that by creating a device for doing the same job, the errors could be eliminated. The difference engine was born: a machine capable of calculating the values of polynomial functions automatically. Sadly, although funding was in place, the difference engine was never completed.

Charles Babbage

Not deterred, Babbage turned his hand to the Difference Engine No. 2, an improve calculating machine, and the Analytical Engine, which was the first programmable computer in existence. He even drew up plans for the first printer. Babbage died before any of his designs could be built, but his influence should not be underestimated and his designs inspired other people to work on computers.

His work has since been proved viable. The Difference Engine No. 2 was constructed between 1989 and 1991 at the London Science Museum, using 19th century manufacturing tolerances: it worked (and continues to work) perfectly, performing calculations to 31 digits. His printer was also constructed and shown to work - proof of Babbage's genius.

Regardless of the fact that his computer was never built while he was alive, Babbage opened the floodgates to a new world of computing machines. Without him, we may not have the modern computers we have today.

9. Alan Turing (23 June 1912 - 7 June 1954)

Alan Turing was principally a mathematician, most famous for helping break the German's Enigma code during World War II at Bletchley Park. It was here, though, that Turing turned to computers to help break codes faster, saving millions of lives in the process and shortening the length of the war.

Alan Turing

The initial machine Turing created was the Bombe: an electromechanical device devised to help the code-breakers device the key of the day the German's were using on their Enigma machines. Using a menu provided by the codebreaking team from a crib (a selection of plaintext that corresponded to ciphertext), the Bombe operators could quickly set up the machine and let it calculate possible Enigma settings, which could then be verified by hand. The design on the Bombe was enhanced by Gordon Welchman, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After the war Turing was an influential figure and came up with the Turing Test: a method by which to test artificial intelligence. Prosecuted for homesexual acts, Turing committed suicide in 1954, and we'll never know the full extent of where his fierce intellect could have led us.

8. Tommy Flowers (22 December 1905 - 28 October 1998)

Another member of the Bletchley Park World War II team, Tommy Flowers was instrumental in building the world's first electronic computer: Colossus. The principle purpose of the machine was to break the Lorenz Cipher, used by high-level Germans, including Adolf Hitler.

Tommy Flowers

Built using valves, the computer was five times faster and more flexible than its predecessor, Heath Robinson. Colossus was the first programmable, digital, computer and revolutionary at the time. It's success in code breaking was demonstrated when Eisenhower was handed a decrypt showing that Hitler wasn't going to move more troops into Normandy and the D-Day landings stood a high-chance of success.

After the war Flowers' achievements went largely overlooked until the '70s, due to the secret nature of the work. However, he continued to have a profound impact at the General Post Office, helping to design the all-electronic telephone exchange.

7. John von Neumann (28 December 1903 - 8 February 1957)

John von Neumann was one of the greatest mathematicians of our recent times, making a huge impact on a wide range of fields, but it's for computer science that we'll recognise him here.

John Von Neumann

It was von Neumann who came up with the computer architecture that's named after him. In a paper, he described an architecture in which both data and the program are stored in a computer's memory in the same address space, making for more flexible computers that were easier to program.

This remained the default computer architecture until more recent times, where development of technology has allowed for more complex designs.

6. Douglas Engelbart (30 January 1925 -July 2 2013)

Douglas Engelbart might not be a name that's well known, but he was a pioneer in the development of the modern computer. While working at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), he created a research department with an agenda entitled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. In other words, creating methods by which people would interact with computers.

It was here that he created the mouse (then a wooden shell with two metal wheels in it), still the de facto way that we interact with computers today. He and his team also created bit-mapped screens, hypertext and some precursors to the graphical user interface (GUI).

The research started here allowed Xerox to continue development and come up with the basis of the windowed-operating system that we all use today.

5. Steve Jobs (24 February 1955 - October 5 2011)

The world seems to split between those that love Apple and its products and those that hate it. Regardless of which camp you're in there's one thing you have to give Apple and Jobs credit for and that's taking an idea and making it desirable.

In 1976 Steve Jobs, along with Stephen Wozniak and Ronald Wayne founded Apple. Although the company had early success with the Apple and, in particular, Apple II computers, it was the original Macintosh (1984) that changed things: it was the first computer to have a graphical user interface and mouse rather than a command line interface.

Steve Jobs

The Macintosh really highlights Jobs' ability to take existing technology and improve it, making it desirable. In the case of this computer the graphical user interface had been developed by Xerox and the mouse by Douglas Engelbart; it was Apple that made them successful.

In 1985 Jobs was relieved of his duties as head of the Macintosh and Apple's fames and fortunes took a nosedive. It wasn't until Jobs was brought back on board in 1996, after Apple bought his NeXT Computer company that Apple's fortunes turned round and it started to make a profit.

Since his return, Apple has produced the iPod, the most popular MP3 player in the world, the iPhone, which has sparked an entirely-new industry with Apps and the iPad. With OS X and the move to Intel hardware, Apple is a leading company in the personal computer market.

His influence outside of the computer industry has been immense, too, with his Pixar company (later acquired by Disney) kick-starting computer-generated films with the incredibly Toy Story.

4. Philip Don Estridge (23 June 1937 - 2 August 1985)

Philip Don Estridge, known as Don Estridge, led the development of the IBM Personal Computer (PC), arguably the most important computer in the history of computers. It's the creation of this computer that's led to the types of computer that we have today.

Philip Don Estridge

The IBM PC was designed as a way for the company to get into the small computer market, dominated at the time by Commodore, Atari and Apple. The revolutionary part about the computer was that it was designed by using off-the-shelf parts available from OEMs, rather than creating brand-new technology. This let IBM create the PC in less than a year and keep prices down to affordable levels.

Even more surprising for the time was that IBM decided to use an open architecture, so that other manufacturers could produce and sell peripherals without having to purchase a license. As we all know, this open architecture also meant that other companies could start creating their own IBM-compatible computers. It's this architecture that exists today and even Apple has changed to embrace it when it switched to using Intel processors in its Mac computers.

The IBM PC also opened up the door for Intel's and Microsoft's success. Without Don Estridge and IBM the world would be a very different place.

3. Gordon Moore (3 January 1929)

Gordon Moore is justly famous for his eponymous law, which describes how the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Although an observation at the time, Moore's company Intel (co-founded with Robert Noyce) has adhered to it, delivering faster and more complicated processor designs.

It's through Intel that Gordon Moore's main contribution to computers is recognised. Initially a semi-conductor company, Intel dramatically shifted its focus to processors. The company supplied its processors to IBM for use in the PC, and with the success of that market, all of the IBM PC clones.

The company has seen off competition and has seen its architecture become the de facto standard in everything from high-end servers to entry-level laptops. Even Apple has switched and is running its Mac OS X on Intel architecture.

As the founder of Intel, Moore has helped shape the modern world and create the base technology platform that the majority of the world uses, whether its Linux, Windows or Mac OS X.

2. Bill Gates (28 October 1955)

Whatever you may think about Bill Gates, there's no doubting the impact that he's had on the computer market. He's best known for founding Microsoft - a name that's synonymous with the personal computer market.

Although Microsoft didn't actually invent DOS (Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products) did, the company has based its fortunes on it, exclusively licensing the OS and later buying it outright to service IBM's PC. From DOS, Microsoft went on to create Windows - the most successful operating system ever, and used by the majority of people the world over.

Bill Gates

Gates is a key figure in the success of Microsoft - equal parts technology genius and business man, he's pushed, cajoled and basically dictated the computer market. While Microsoft may have lost its way a little and missed out on repeating its success online, the company remains a powerful force.

Gates has moved on to charity work, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He's promised to give away the bulk of his fortune in charitable work, which makes it hard to hate him completely.

1. Tim Berners-Lee (8 June 1955)

Of all the cool claims to fame, inventing the world wide web has to be the best. That honour lies squarely with Tim Berners-Lee. While working as a contractor at CERN, he came up with a system called ENQUIRE, which enabled sharing and updating information between researchers using hypertext.

It was in 1989 when he returned to CERN that he saw an opportunity to link hypertext to the internet (itself only actually a way of connecting computer networks across the globe) and the World Wide Web was born.

He designed and built the first web browser, created the first web server and, in short, changed the entire world as we know it. We're now so reliant on the internet that it's impossible to imagine life without the world wide web.

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