Web Culture

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

Saikat Basu 02-07-2012

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.


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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  1. Ulan
    March 14, 2016 at 11:44 am

    God of Linux - Linus Torvalds???

    • Saikat Basu
      March 14, 2016 at 12:58 pm

      As I said in the conclusion...
      "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?"


  2. Neutron
    October 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    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.

  3. Theo Reisinger
    October 10, 2012 at 1:08 am

    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

  4. Shawn Ashree Baba
    July 18, 2012 at 1:55 am

    Beautiful minds. Geeks always revolutionizing the world.

  5. Vladimir Filipov
    July 10, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    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.

  6. Bengt-Arne Vedin
    July 10, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    You missed out a titan: Doug Engelbart

  7. Mick Murry
    July 9, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Richard M. Stallman!

    1. He created emacs. (My favorite editor! WOOT!)

    2. He created the operating system popularly referred to as "Linux" (even though that's actually the name of the kernel).

    3. He created the GNU General Public License and started the Free Software Movement.

  8. Cherie D
    July 8, 2012 at 1:35 am

    How about Larry Wall (perl and patch), John McCarthy (coined the terms AI and login), Kernighan and Knuth, Wozniak (too famous?), Vernor Vinge (for writing True Names), Stuart Cheshire for writing Bolo, the first MMO. 10 is a tough limit to set yourself!

    • Saikat Basu
      July 8, 2012 at 3:56 am

      Ten is sure a tough limit and if I say, an impossible one. I wanted this article to be concise enough to read in one go, and interesting enough by using interesting facts from their lives. For every name on this list, I can introduce five more. Just goes to show, there are so many 'hidden' heroes who never quite got their share of spotlight outside their own domains.

  9. Richard
    July 7, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I like this. Stumbled on your page by accident but it is good to see the real heroes of our IT industry recognised rather than the nonsense the advertisers feed us.

    I also support Grace Hopper in the list. Maybe 10 was too few. But how about Tommy Flowers, the man who actually made the first valve computer that made Alan Turing's thoughts a reality. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Flowers

    Xerox PARC should be in with a shot too.


    • Saikat Basu
      July 8, 2012 at 3:57 am

      Thanks for the mention. He is another World War 2 hero.

  10. samantha
    July 7, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Really cool article! I didn't know about any of these people. Thanks for the info. :)

  11. DigitalMartians
    July 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    great post!! Im gonna retweet this , facebook it, and pin it!!!
    ~DigitalMartians.com -- Futuristic Gagdets for a Modern Lifestyle!

  12. Dave Parrack
    July 5, 2012 at 11:10 am

    I swear Vint Cerf is The Architect from The Matrix Trilogy. It would be a rather fitting connection too.

    • Saikat Basu
      July 6, 2012 at 6:28 am

      Holy cow! They do look as if they were separated at birth.

      • Eze Uba
        August 3, 2012 at 9:07 am

        No kidding... He is 'The Architect'... That means we are all sleeping our lives away while machines run the world... which is not so far from the apparent reality, seen from a virtual standpoint... I'm losing it... someone free me from my cocoon...

  13. Dave Anderton
    July 3, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Hmmmm. Anyone hear about Charles Babbage here?

    • Saikat Basu
      July 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

      I guess everyone who has picked up a basic computer book has :)

      • Dave Anderton
        July 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm

        True Saikat, but you'd be surprised if you had to deal with some of the people who've crossed my path this last few years... I swear this is true, but during training for an IT Trainer's Cert. the lecturer actually told me that "they" (whoever "they" are) had dispensed with the byte altogether now... :-)

      • Dave Anderton
        July 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm

        Great article though.

        • Saikat Basu
          July 6, 2012 at 6:27 am

          Aah, we should never forget our "digital" roots. What you say could be true...I have asked quite a few computer application students about the conversion from byte to bit. You can't imagine their level of ignorance.

    • Richard
      July 8, 2012 at 8:03 am

      To be fair Babbage only invented a mechanical calculator, he also never completed it. The London Science Museum built a "difference engine" in 1991 and it works. But it is not programmable in our modern sense and is not a compter. This is in a similar vein to the folks who think Michealangelo "invented the helicopter" because he had a sketch of a man beneath a large propeller.
      The folks in this list invented from a plain sheet of paper and MADE the thing WORK reliably. That's whey Saikat included them. Cheers

    • Anonymous
      October 14, 2012 at 4:00 am

      We all know about him. Was he a Geek :P at the time when computer was just a concept? He was more like a computer hardware pro. I don't remember the evidence that shows that he has coded anything

  14. JC
    July 3, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Grace Hopper...... If you don't know the name your not a geek at all!

  15. Jim Swanson
    July 3, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    @Luis: Grace Murray Hopper, of course (can you spell COBOL?) but John Vincent Atanasoff, and the Atanasoff-Berry computer need to be put in there somewhere. See Wikipedia for more information.

    • Saikat Basu
      July 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      As I said guys, this is just a small list. You can't say that just ten people changed the world. Thanks for all your contributions, as they are introducing us to other true greats.

  16. Von Diesel
    July 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    The true father of modern Internet is William Gibson.
    In fact he coined the term "cyberspace"!

  17. Yudono Ra
    July 3, 2012 at 9:52 am

    only knew a few names on the list, great share

  18. Tanguy Djokovic
    July 3, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Dennis Ritchie is the real deal, though the orthers are also important of course ^^

  19. Ben
    July 3, 2012 at 4:16 am

    Did not know Michael Hart.

  20. bowserdude
    July 2, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    How about Gary Kildall? He brought many innovations to the computer world, helping make computers what they are today. He wrote CP/M upon which MS-DOS was based (some authorities use the word "stolen" instead), and did significant work on disk-writing functions as well as many, many others... truly an unheralded giant in the industry.

    • Dave Anderton
      July 3, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      MS-DOS was "stolen" from one of Bill Gates' mates at DEC as far as I understand it - it was QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) and Gates bought it and made MSDOS. Kildall stated that he wanted nothing to do with IBM and went flying his plane when the execs from big blue came calling. Maybe I'm wrong here but that's the story as I have it....

      • Baldlars
        July 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm

        This is the version I'm aware of ...

        IBM PC-DOS and its predecessor, 86-DOS, were loosely “inspired, copied, stolen, etc.” from Gary Kindall’s CPM (Digital Research founder). CPM at that time was the dominant disk operating system for the 8-bit Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80 microcomputers.
        When the IBM PC with the Intel 8088 microprocessor was announced in 1979/80, they needed an operating system.

        At that time, the 8088-compatible OS was CPM. IBM approached Microsoft (MS) - believing that MS owned CPM because their Z-80 SoftCard allowed CPM to run on Apple II’s. Microsoft directed IBM to Digital Research, however, the negotiations for the use of CPM broke down—Digital Research only wished to sell CPM on a royalty basis. IBM wanted a single license, and wanted to change the name to "PC DOS". Side-note; Digital Research did make a deal with Xerox for their 820 PC … which ended up being a flop.

        IBM returned to MS and MS in turn contacted Tim Paterson at Seattle Computer Product (SCP) for their version of CPM-80 operating system, aka QDOS. Tim Paterson “borrowed, copied, stole, etc” Digital Research’s CPM – QDOS only took 6 weeks to write. MS purchased a variant of the original CPM-80, the 86 DOS for $50,000. At the time SCP did not know that MS was working on behalf of IBM. Side-note; In 1981, Tim Paterson left SCP and became an employee of MS.

        Due to legal reasons (Digital Research’s threatened law suit against IBM), IBM initially sold their consumer PC with either Digital’s CPM-86 or IBM’s PC-DOS. Just like what happened at Xerox, the CPM version never really got off the ground – it didn’t help that the CPM version cost $200 more than PC-DOS.

        • Dave Anderton
          July 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm

          Cool - at last someone who can give me a more definitive account. The story I heard was apocraphyl (is that the right word?) - it has been doing the rounds for a long time, and I was never aware of the full truth behind the matter. Thankyou.

  21. HildyJ
    July 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Edgar Codd, inventor of the relational database without which the Internet would be useless.


    • Saikat Basu
      July 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      Then he is a winner of the A.M Turing Award. There have been others before him too, as very few inventions and innovations stand alone, especially in computer science. Thanks for the link.

  22. Reý Aetar
    July 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    A Salute and bow before them

  23. Luis Gomez
    July 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Grace Hopper: Compilers