Tech Sense: Famous People in Computer Technology

October 24, 2018

 

 

 

This morning I woke up to read that Paul Allen has died.  Paul Allen along with his better known partner Bill Gates created the company we know as Microsoft.  I also read an article stating that there were no longer any individual inventor's, only large teams of people working together. So keeping these two ideas in mind it occurred to me to write about those people that made large contributions to the technology world we know today.  These people are not presented in any order, many are still living, and of course I can only cover a few but each had an impact making the world what it is today.

 

 

Paul Allen and Bill Gates - Microsoft Basic

Working together these two created Altair Basic for the Altair computer. This eventually became known as Microsoft Basic.  Their Basic programming language was not the first but it was designed to operate on early microcomputers that were the first to be sold as complete systems.  Eventually they were successful in selling their basic language to Radio Shack for the TRS-80 and to Commodore for use in their Pet Computers.  Apple already had its own version of Basic built in but by the time the Apple II came around it included Applesoft Basic which was Microsoft Basic under the covers.  As a result many of the early home computers made by Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack came with Microsoft Basic built-in and others could load Microsoft Basic from disk or tape.

 

 

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Today everyone knows that Steve Jobs was associated with Apple.  But the original Apple computer was conceived, designed, and built entirely by Steve Wozniak.  Steve Jobs came up with the idea to sell the computers as completed products.  Steve Wozniak went on to design the Apple II.  The Apple II was the first home computer with the ability to display color and included an expansion bus so the computer could be enhanced.  When IBM created their famous PC they recognized the utility of Apple's expansion bus and included one in their product.

 

 

Alan Turing

Alan Turing is often credited with having designed to first fully functioning computer.  He is the primary character in the movie "The Imitation Game". While he helped to crack the enigma code, he is best known for his early writings on machine intelligence.  In 1950 he devised the idea of creating a test to distinguish a human operator from a possible artificial intelligence.  This test today is called a "Turing Test" and a form of it is used on many websites site to make certain that humans are filling in forms.  His mathematical theories form the basis for many of today's programming languages.

 

 

 

 

Dennis Ritchie and Kenneth Thompson

Dennis Ritchie and Kenneth Thompson created both the C programming language and the Unix Operating System while working at Bell Labs in the 1970's.  Today, most of the World Wide Web runs on software derived from Unix and written in C.  Unix is comprised of many parts and many have contributed to its development over the years but these two are considered by most to be responsible for the original creation.  Android, MacOS, and Linux operating systems are based on Unix.

 

 

Richard Stallman

In 1985 Richard Stallman wrote the GNU Manifesto and published it the magazine Dr. Dobbs Journal (DDJ).  DDJ was a popular technology magazine that had gotten its start by publishing source code for Basic interpreters for home built computers.  Earlier that decade AT&T had decided to give up its monopoly status and raise the price of a Unix license to where it was no longer affordable by many Universities.  Prior to that Unix was popular in the Universities for teaching students how operating systems were constructed.  Mr. Stallman felt that software like Unix should be free and that the source code should be free to read and modify.  The GNU Manifesto was a call to the computing community to create a free and open source operating system like Unix for everyone to use.  GNU stands for GNU is not Unix. To accomplish this he created the Free Software Foundation (FSF) saying "Software should be free, not as in price but as in freedom".  He also made a sizable contribution of code that implemented a number of needed Unix utilities.  The FSF created a license known as the GNU Public License or GPL.  The license is designed to require new software build on top of free software to also be free.  This is the origin of modern open source software.

 

 

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds was a student in Finland when he purchased a computer based on the Intel 386 chip set.  He also bought a textbook on Operating System (OS) design that included a disk with the MINIX OS. In 1991 he learned about the GNU project and he designed an OS kernel using the GNU tools, some of which had been ported to MINIX.  This became known as Linux because that was the name of the folder used to share the files.  Today, Linux combined with the GNU Tools and contributions from many other opens source projects has become the most popular operating system used by business.

 

 

Timothy Berners-Lee

In 1990 Timothy Berners-Lee created the first web browser on a NeXT computer and thus created what we know today as the World Wide Web. Coincidentally NeXT was the computer created by Steve Jobs after he left Apple.  Berners-Lee also led the team at CERN that initially created the HTTP protocol, the first web server, and HTML, all of the core elements of the Web that we know today.

 

 

 

Robert Metcalf

Ethernet is the technology used today for connecting computers, printers, and other devices in your home or office.  These networks are called Local Area Networks or LANs.  Robert Metcalf worked at MIT connecting the school to Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet.  While he worked at Xerox PARC he and a partner David Boggs invented the first incarnation of Ethernet.  He left Xerox and started his own company 3Com to manufacture networking hardware.

 

Closing Remarks

Of course it would be impossible for me to include every contributor and I have some favorites that are related to technologies unfamiliar to most people.  I also missed some interesting factoids, like before he built the Apple, Steve Wozniak created the Breakout game for Atari.  He later wrote the game in Integer basic to show it could run on the Apple computer.  If you are interested in the early days of computing, two good books to read are; "Hackers" by Steven Levy and "Fire in the Valley" by Michael Swaine and Paul Freiberger.

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