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"Even when the facts are available,
most people seem to prefer the legend,
and refuse to believe the truth
when it in any way dislodges the myth."
	-- John Mason Brown in Saturday Review,
	cited in The Great Quotations by George Seldas.

Ian Darwin: Computing History, Myths and Legends

My Own Meagre Contributions

Computing Legends

Who are the most important persons in the history of computing? Nobody knows for sure, but certainly the following would be among the Top 10 (actually, a dozen) for technical innovations and/or key ideas:

  • Unknown Hellenic ancients, for the Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator _lost for two millenia_.
  • Charles Babbage, for the first workable physical computer design, and Countess Ada Lovelace for programming it
  • Alan Turing, for computing theory
  • John von Neumann for computing theory
  • John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry at Iowa State University for the first electronic computer (1937-42).
  • John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania for Eniac (1946)
  • Manchester University for Baby, "the world's first stored program digital computer" (1948)
  • John Backus et al, for FORTRAN and for BNF
  • Tony Hoare for Algol, and for the concept of the "null pointer", which he would decades later call his "billion dollar mistake."
  • Thompson, Ritchie, Kernighan, McIlroy et al for the Unix Operating System, hierarchical filesystems made popular, regular expressions applied to text, the first widely-distributed email client (/bin/mail), software tools/filters, pipes and diff (both McIlroy), the setuid patent (Ritchie, assigned to the public domain), Dennis for the C programming language, and all of them for so many other things we take for granted.
  • Paul Otlet for inventing hypertext in the 1930's(!); Vannevar Bush for the electronic form of hypertext (1945); Doug Englebart (see below) for an early demonstration of it (1968), Ted Nelson for making it popular among computer geeks; Sir Tim Berners-Lee for making it practical (HTTP and HTML; early 1990's), Marc Andreeson et al (Mosiac at NCSA/UIUC, then Mozilla (Mosaic Killa'?) at Netscape) for making it pretty.
  • Doug Englebart of SRI (a mile or so from PARC, see below), for the computer mouse, for being one of the first advocates of interactive computing (as opposed to batch computing) and one of the first demonstrations of hypertext, for the idea of "augmenting the human intellect" (presaging both better forms of social organization and human-computer collaboration), and for other ideas used at PARC and elsewhere. See this retrospective on the "mother of all demos" at SRI.
  • Xerox PARC (whose researchers included Alan Kay, Bob Metcalfe, Adelle Goldberg, Bob Lampson, Peter Deutsch, et. al) for the second (and first widely-used) object-oriented language SmallTalk, the Model-View-Controller pattern, overlapping windows, bitmap-based word processors, the laser printer, and almost everything we use today; Kay for the Dynabook, which morphed into today's notebook computers. Lampson & Deutsch also much earlier wrote a text editor which Thompson & Ritchie used as a starting point for UNIX ed. PARC people also invented PUP, the direct precursor of TCP/IP. In short, most of what we today take for granted in desktop computing, except for the mouse.
  • Gordon Bell and others at Digital Equipment Corporation made the first widely-used non-mainframe computers, the PDP and VAX lines. Read an overview of their history at domain-taker-overer and in more detail on Wikipedia.
  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak for the Apple II, and Steve Jobs for the Macintosh, the NeXT computer and OS, Apple's rebirth, the iPod, the UNIX/NeXT-based OS X, the iPhone, and more. Hiltzik (see below) claims that Lisa, Mac's predecessor, was almost finished by the time Jobs first visited PARC, though it's often claimed that he got most of the ideas from PARC. There's a detailed interview with John Sculley talking about Jobs as an industrial designer, certainly a fair moniker (Sculley was CEO of PepsiCo when the famous "Pepsi Generation" campaign invented lifestyle advertising, which is one reason Apple's board of directors hired him to be CEO over Jobs).
  • Ray Kurzweil for the first practical Optical Character Recognition at a time when everybody else said mini-computers could not handle this task, and for his tireless promotion of human-computer collaboration; he prophecies that humans and computers will merge in this (21st) century, an event he and others refer to as "the singularity".
  • IBM for the IBM mainframe, and for the IBM PC which unfortunately killed off dozens of better personal computers (including the nascent Xerox Star; again, see Hiltzik) to become the "standard" desktop (1981)
  • Gary Kildall, visionary and founder of Digital Research, inventors of CP/M and CP/M-86, of which Seattle's SC-DOS / QDOS (Quick and Dirty OS) was a cheap knock-off that Bill Gates bought up. Gary died in relative obscurity (at least compared to Gates), but did leave behind a memoir, part of which is available here. He deserves to be remembered by history.
  • Tim Paterson of Seattle Computing wrote the SC-DOS (Seattle Computer DOS) that was flipped by Microsoft to IBM, the beginning of the road for the Microsoft Monopoly.
  • The Three Amigos (Jacobson, Rumbuagh and Booch) and for conceptual contributions to OOP, particularly the Unified Modelling Language (UML) and the Rational Design Methodology.
  • The The Gang of Four (Gamma, Helm, Johnson and Vlissides) for conceptual contributions to OOP, particularly the Design Patterns book.
  • Jacob Palme and others (Simula 67, 1967), Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg at PARC (SmallTalk, 1974), Bjarne Stroustrup at Bell Labs (C++, 1976) and James Gosling at Sun (Oak/Java, 1990) for practical contributions to OOP (Gosling also wrote the first UNIX Emacs editor, the first object-oriented window system NeWS, an early UNIX spreadsheet sc, and more).
  • Bill Joy, Kirk McKusick, Keith Bostic and many, many more for turning Bell Labs' UNIX into BSD (Berkeley UNIX): the fast filesystem, long filenames, networking Sockets and a TCP/IP implementation; Joy for the vi editor (1977?); Joy and others for the Sun Workstation (1982). Bill Jolitz created the first port of BSD to the Intel architecture. Jordan K. Hubbard and many others turned this into FreeBSD. Hubbard later worked at Apple leading a team that morphed FreeBSD into the UNIX-based Macintosh OS X. Others turned it into NetBSD; Theo de Raadt and others created OpenBSD , showing us new levels of achievement in code correctness and security. The OpenBSD project also gave us OpenSSH to eliminate use of Telnet and rlogin over the internet.

Still on the UNIX front, special mention to Linus Torvalds, for cloning the UNIX kernel (with help from Andy Tanenbaum's MINIX filesystem) resulting in Linux, and Richard Stallman for cloning James Gosling's Emacs, for cloning various C compilers into GCC, and for inventing the GPL (GNU Public Virus), and for the tremendous effort he has put into maintaining gnuemacs, gcc and many other tools over the past two decades.

And Bill Gates, who actually invented little (he started by cloning a Basic interpreter and buying a cloned operating system), but hired some of the best (when Xerox PARC was at the end of its first glory days) and sold vigorously what they produced. For more on Mr. Gates, see the Myths section below.

Many others have made significant contributions to computing as we know it:

  • John McCarthy for LISP 1.5 (1962)
  • , the first recognizably functional programming language.
  • Gene Amdahl for the IBM mainframe architecture (1965) and Amdahl Computers (IBM mainframe clones)
  • Fernando Corbato for writing CTSS (Compatible Time Sharing System, 1963)
  • Gordon E. Moore, Intel co-founder, for Moore's Law
  • Niklaus Wirth for many ideas, and for the Pascal language.
  • Warnock and Geschke, PARC ex-pats, for PostScript, and for Adobe Illustrator.
  • Peter Deutsch (the Canadian), for developing Archie while at McGill University; Archie is (was) an indexing service popular before the Web,
  • the other Peter Deutsch, who previously worked at Xerox PARC, for GhostScript, the most successful clone of PostScript
  • Donald Knuth for TeX, the nth great batch text formatter, and for his encyclopaedic series The Art of Computer Programming, first issued around 1968 (I still have my first edition of Volumes 1-3).
  • Ralph Griswold for SNOBOL4 (1971) and ICON (1983) programming languages. (my first application of "software tools" was a set of half a dozen SNOBOL4 programs, each of which made one small transformation over the text of an entire University calendar that was being migrated from one text formatter to another),
  • Larry Wall for rn, patch and Perl; Randall Schwartz, Tom Christiansen & others for improving and popularizing it.
  • John Ousterhout for Tcl/TK
  • Guido van Rossum for Python
  • Jeff Hawkins for the Palm Computing platform, the first and only successful mass-market handheld
  • Conway and others for promulgating VLSI, the hardware technique that made desktop computing feasible
  • Brian Kernighan for AWK (originally with Aho and Weinberger, hence the name), ditroff, pic, grap, etc.
  • Mike Lesk for grep, uucp, lex, tbl, refer, and other contributions to UNIX
  • Steve Johnson for the Portable C Compiler
  • Don Davies, for the phrase "packet switching" -- Paul Baran had called it ``distributed adaptive message block switching'' (DAMBS would never have made it :-))
  • J. Licklider, Larry Roberts, Bob Taylor and others (and the US taxpayers!) for enabling the development of the ArpaNet, which transmogrified itself into the Internet (no, Al Gore did not invent that either).
  • Steve Crocker for RFC 1 - creating the RFC mould - and Jon Postel for many contributions to the Internet, including helping develop TCP/IP, serving as RFC editor, and running IANA.
  • Eric Allman for Sendmail (1978)
  • NCSA, W3C, and The Apache Project for the Apache Web Server which made the Web easy to serve up.
  • David Korn for the Korn Shell, based in part on Steve Bourne's sh
  • MIT and The X Consortium for The X Window System, which gave birth to The XFree86 Project
  • Sun Microsystems for NFS (open protocol), RPC (open source, 1984?) and XView, the first open-source professional-quality X Window System toolkit (1988). XView introduced the right-button context menus now used in Windows 95 and Java.
  • Dr. Charles Goldfarb for inventing, and Yuri Rubinsky among others for promulgating, SGML, the ancestor of both HTML and XML; Tim Bray, Jon Bosak, and others working with the World Wide Web consortium, for inventing XML.
  • Andy Rubin for mashing up the Linux kernel, the BSD userland, and a Java runtime to create the first versions of Android (Rubin later created the self-named Essential Phone), which the market decided wasn't so essential.

There is an unnumbered and enormous populace who have contributed to modern computing; see also my list of Unix programs and who wrote them.

Sources, References, More Reading, etc.

See a similar list here (enable your pop-up and banner blocker before visiting).

Some of the above factoids were gleaned from Peter Salus, via his history column in the June 2000 issue of Linux Journal and via personal correspondence. Others come from the books and papers below (including the one I co-wrote), and just from personal knowledge/experience.

See also Matt Raible's History of Web Frameworks (scroll down to see the chart).

The following books and papers contain more details:


The Myths section is highly opinionated. Caveat lector.

Myths about Computing

There are so many, it's hard to know where to begin. So start here:

Myths about life

This doesn't really relate to computer history but hey, it had to go somewhere. And, at any rate, there are plenty to pick from:

Send more myths/legends, or comments on these ones.