10 Famous Geeks Who Changed The World (Not Who You Think)

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people that changed the worldIf I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants. So, said the genius called Isaac Newton. What was true of one of the most brilliant minds of history should be true of every one of the esteemed people on this list. The number ten is just a minuscule figure for a lineup that is supposed to be of famous geeks who changed the world, but so it is here for the sake of keeping this list brief.

The only underlying logic I can offer in my defense is that this geek list is of people whom you might not recognize if you bumped into them at the neighborhood mall. No Page 3 names here. And so no Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, or Mark Zuckerberg.

Alan Turing

people that changed the world

Famous Geekiness: The Turing Machine in second place. His effect on the outcome of The Second World War in the first. (Wikipedia)

The day I wrote this article was Alan Turing’s birthday and Google honored him with a special doodle.  Why? Because the famous cipher breaker is regarded as the Father of Computer Science. He also made a lasting contribution to the ideas about artificial intelligence. The Turing Machine was the forefather of the modern computer algorithm. It is a hypothetical model that explains the logic of computational logic or can be even used to explain a CPU. Think of it as the simplest computer of its kind.

Interesting fact: He was criminally prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952. He committed suicide in 1954. Gordon Brown issued a public apology in 2009.

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Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf

who changed the world
Famous Geekiness: Proposed and gave form to the Internet we know today in a paper titled ‘A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection.’(Wikipedia Link1 & Link2)

From the father of computer science, to the men considered to be one of the Fathers of The Internet. Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, thought of and created the TCP/IP suite of communication protocols that is the virtual backbone of the Internet. Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol for the first time enabled diverse range of computers and networks to ‘talk’ with one another, truly creating a global connection.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

who changed the world

Famous Geekiness: Invented the World Wide Web. (Wikipedia)

While working at CERN he proposed the idea of hypertext that would allow researchers to share information across the Internet in the form of hypertext documents. What was meant to be a way for information interchange between scientists, became a global interconnected network, the Web we know today. Tim Berners-Lee also created the first browser, the first web editor, and the first website at CERN.

Interesting Fact: His father Conway Berners-Lee and mother Mary Lee Woods both worked on the development of Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first commercial electronic computer.

Ralph H. Baer

who changed the world

Famous Geekiness: Video games pioneer, considered to be the Father of Video Games for his contributions. (Wikipedia)

Ralph H. Baer developed the Brown Box (later the Magnavox Odyssey), the first home video game console. He also created the first light gun and brought in cartridges as part of console games. He almost single-handedly gave birth to what today is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Interesting fact: Ralph H. Baer was a television engineer by profession and later also created the classic Simon for Mattel.

Ray Tomlinson

Famous Geekiness: Creator of email. (Wikipedia)

Just when Internet was coming into being via its predecessor, the ARPANET in 1971, Ray Tomlinson created something that in time made postmen worry about their future and us forget about the art of letter writing. The email had humble beginnings when it was sent from one machine to another that was next to it. Later other mail handling protocols were established and email rapidly evolved as a form of communication.

Interesting fact: The @ symbol was used by Ray Tomlinson to tell which user was at what computer in the building they were all in.

Dennis Ritchie

people changing the world

Famous Geekiness: Created the “C” programming language and the UNIX operating system (with Ken Thompson). (Wikipedia)

How significant was the development of “C”? Let me quote a magazine article that said – the shoulders Steve Jobs stood on. Unlike Steve Jobs he died almost unnoticed and unsung. The importance of C is that it can be used to code without worrying about the hardware platform. It is the core of many operating systems from Mac OS X to iOS and Android. Many hardware drivers are written in C. As the geeky saying goes – real men code in C.

Interesting fact: Dennis Ritchie along with Brian Kernighan authored the The C Programming Language, the most definitive book on the topic. They were the first to introduce the “Hello World” program which continues to be used as an example first program by everyone. 

Jarkko Oikarinen

Famous Geekiness: Created IRC, the oldest multi-chat protocol in the world. (Wikipedia)

Nokia isn’t the only thing Finland should be famous for. In 1988, Jarkko Oikarinen created the Internet Relay Chat. IRC was the world’s first real-time chat protocol. It is still going strong with thousands of networks and IRC servers around the world. IRC clients are available for every operating system and today’s IRC clients unlike their text-only predecessors also allow file sharing.

Interesting fact: Both during the Gulf War and the 1991  Soviet coup d’état attempt, IRC was the one tool that managed to defeat the media blackouts and report from the ground.

Shawn Fanning

people changing the world

Famous Geekiness: Started Napster and possibly the digital music sharing revolution. (Wikipedia)

What started as a peer-to-peer file sharing service in 1998 arguably set off the digital music revolution and popularity of MP3 songs.  Napster was shut down in 2001 after a series of lawsuits by music majors. Napster popularized the P2P model and it was one of the first platforms where indie singers and underground music could make its name. Shawn Fanning is a college dropout and he set up Napster along with John Fanning and Sean Parker.

Interesting fact: Napster was named after Shawn Fanning’s frizzy haircut (nappy).

Bram Cohen

people changing the world

Famous Geekiness: Created BitTorrent. (Wikipedia)

You might have heard about BitTorrent but not about Bram Cohen. The American computer programmer wrote the peer-to-peer protocol which enables us to share files of any type simultaneously with other users around the world. He also programmed the BitTorrent client.

Interesting fact: Bram Cohen suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome which affects the physical and social abilities of a person.

Michael Hart

people that changed the world

Famous Geekiness: Creator of the electronic book (eBook). (Wikipedia)

Michael Hart is probably the least geeky person on this list, but his contribution is profound and could be more so as knowledge expands and spreads. Thanks to eBooks. He is also the founder of Project Gutenberg that makes available books out of copyright (Public Domain) and some copyrighted works that are available with express permission. Project Gutenberg can also be thought of as the world’s first online public library.

Interesting fact: He typed in by hand the first 300+ books made available on Project Gutenberg. Though he made knowledge freely available, he died in poverty.

Here, you might shout about the usual suspects. No Jack Dorsey (creator of Twitter), no Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and no Linus Torvalds (Linux). It’s almost as if I pulled out random names from a hat. Probably that’s why I didn’t get an Ada Lovelace or an Al Gore either. But that’s the problem with lists. It has to end somewhere and you can’t put everyone on it. I really wanted to put Matt Mullenweg here because he is one of the reasons you are reading this post here. He developed WordPress after all. So, who’s your name on the list? We are listening.

Image Credit: VIP in silver letters via Shutterstock

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Comments (37)
  • Neutron

    I guess it is true, They truly changed the world. Jobs became a hero after death but the Real hero Dennis Ritchie was not even in the Newspaper of my country.

    Respect for him.

  • Theo Reisinger

    It’s a bit sad that these names are not more known, even though we increasingly use technology that couldn’t work without their contributions

  • Shawn Ashree Baba

    Beautiful minds. Geeks always revolutionizing the world.

  • Vladimir Filipov

    Where is the father of the computer – John Vincent Atanasoff?
    He created the furst computer in 1941 – the Atanasoff-Berry Computer
    Check Wikipedia for John Vincent Atanasoff and ABC computer.

  • Bengt-Arne Vedin

    You missed out a titan: Doug Engelbart

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.