While names like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg typically grab the headlines, there’s a group of innovative minds who have made groundbreaking contributions without widespread recognition.
Following is a curated list of 11 unsung heroes in the technology sector, hailing from diverse backgrounds and fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, gaming, and more. You’ll discover their unique contributions and why their work merits your attention.
- Alan Turing. If you’ve ever heard of the Turing Test, which asks a human whether he or she can tell the difference between man and machine via a series of posed questions, you’re passingly familiar with the father of modern computing. Turing was a cryptologist during WWII and a groundbreaking computer science theorist who envisioned the possibilities — and dangers — of artificial intelligence decades before chatGPT and similar forms of AI existed. The annual ACM A.M. Turing Award recognizes someone who has made lasting contributions to computer science.
- Sky Dayton. Back in the mid-1990s, when far fewer people were online than today, AOL was the default internet service provider. And it was very expensive; AOL charged per minute of internet usage. This didn’t sit well with Sky Dayton, who at just 23 had already launched one successful business. So he created EarthLink, an ISP that charged users a flat monthly fee and provided good telephone support (remember, this was during the days of dial-up).
- Hedy Lamarr. A screen star of the 1930s and ’40s, Hedy Lamarr was also a technology genius who played a key role in the invention of spread-spectrum technology, known as frequency hopping, which was intended to help the Navy control torpedoes during WWII. Although the military declined her contribution, this discovery led to the creation of what would become WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Finally, in 1997, Lamarr received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in long overdue recognition of her scientific achievements — just three years before her death at age 85.
- Barbara Liskov. As one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, Barbara Liskov has long been an IT trailblazer. She invented CLU, a programming language that helped lay the foundation for object-oriented programming; and Thor, an object-oriented database system. These advances contributed to many modern OOP-based languages and operating systems, including Mac OSX and Java. Computers wouldn’t be able to coherently integrate language without her inventions, and in recognition of this truth, Liskov received the A.M. Turing Award in 2008.
- Ajay Bhatt. Charged your smartphone lately? Or plugged a backup drive into your laptop? Thank Ajay Bhatt, who created the USB. The computer architect helped develop several widely used technologies, including USB, AGP, Platform Power management architecture, and various chipset improvements.
- Bob Thomas. Cybersecurity didn’t exist in the 1970s. Neither did PCs. But Bob Thomas created Creeper, the first computer virus, as an experimental computer program designed to discover what a computer worm might be able to do. Unlike the malware that plagues our devices today, Creeper was not malicious software. It caused no damage to data; it simply left a message reading, “I’m the Creeper: catch me if you can.”
- Ray Tomlinson. In response to Thomas’ work, Ray Tomlinson created Reaper, the first anti-virus software, in 1972. Tomlinson also implemented the first email program on ARPANET (the precursor to the internet) designed to send emails between different hosts. To do this, he used the @ symbol, which has defined how email addresses are written ever since. The Internet Hall of Fame wrote, “Tomlinson’s email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate.”
- Martin Cooper. A modern version of Alexander Graham Bell saying, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” over the first functional telephone in 1876 is Motorola employee Martin Cooper placing a call from a handheld device on a Manhattan sidewalk to his competitor at Bell Labs. This took place in 1973 and was the first cell phone call. Considered the father of the cell phone as Turing is the father of modern computing, Cooper has co-founded numerous communications companies and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2010 in recognition of his leadership in the development and use of the cellular portable handheld telephone, known today simply as our extra appendage.
- Douglas Engelbart. Before track pads there were mice, and before the mouse, there was Douglas Engelbart, who invented it. Though Engelbart created and patented his “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1967 (imagine having to say that instead of a mouse!), it only caught on when Apple began using them with its own innovative personal computers. Engelbart was a visionary in other areas as well: he demonstrated videoconferencing in 1968.
- Nolan Bushnell. This man envisioned a world where everyone could play games from the comfort of their own home. While no one uses Atari consoles any longer, Bushnell is the undisputed father of video games, who paved the way for all the gaming that followed.
- Gordon Moore. How many components can you fit on a computer chip? Way back in 1965, before he founded Intel, Gordon Moore predicted the answer would be, that the number would double every two years. Today, Moore’s Law remains the guiding principle for the semiconductor industry — and every other tech field, from TVs to hard drives.