In case you missed the news, Eugene Polley recently passed away at the age of 96. Don’t recognize the name? You’ll certainly recognize his invention. In 1955, the former Zenith Electronics engineer debuted the first remote control. Looking more like a green stun gun than the devices we know today, the Flash-Matic not only helped to grow generations of “couch potatoes” but it freed us from cumbersome cables and mechanical dials, and spun off countless other wireless inventions. Like Polley, the following inventors may not have the name recognition of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but without these little-known titans of technology paving the way, the aforementioned behemoths of brains (and billions) may never have created the ubiquitous devices, technologies and trends that made them famous.
5. Kees Schouhamer Immink: Father of the Compact Disc
Every time you listen to a CD or record a family event on Digital Video, you’re using a technology developed by Kees Immink. The Dutch scientist and founder of research firm Turing Machines Inc. has secured more than 1,000 foreign patents in his more than four decades of research on data storage, and he has revolutionized consumer electronics time and time again. After overseeing the joint efforts of Sony/Philips to create the first CD in the 1970s, Immink used his coding techniques to introduce a series of products to the world in the 1980s and ’90s, including the DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Video (DV) technology.
4. Shigeru Miyamoto: Father of the Modern Video Game
When Nintendo first entered the North American market in 1980 with Radar Scope, the arcade game did not get the same warm reception it enjoyed in its home base of Japan. In fact, it flopped. Enter head engineer Gunpei Yokoi and his young protégé, Shigeru Miyamoto. They were tasked with refashioning the unsold Radar Scope units into a hit game. Although he was a graphic artist who had never before designed a game, Miyamoto had plenty of creative and storytelling ability. He created a love triangle inspired by Bluto, Popeye and Olive Oyl involving a strange — yet now familiar — mix of gorilla, carpenter and girl. The result, of course, turned out to be Donkey Kong, which ushered in a new concept in gaming. From that point forward, designers would create a story first, then do the programming. Oh, the original character in Donkey Kong was known as “Mr. Video,” and then “Jumpman.” One day, at Nintendo’s warehouse, the struggling company’s landlord interrupted a staff meeting to demand his overdue rent. The company, on the verge of a huge breakthrough with the new Donkey Kong, promised the payment, and named the game’s character after the landlord, Mario. The mustachioed Italian plumber character has since gone on to become Nintendo’s mascot, star in more than 200 different games through the years, and become one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Miyamoto’s other creations read like a “Who’s Who” of video game franchises, including The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox and the Wii series.
3. Vinod Dham: Father of the Pentium Chip
In 1975, 25-year-old Vinod Dham left his family in India to pursue graduate work at the University of Cincinnati. He had less than $10 to his name. In two years, Dham’s research on reprogrammable memory would impress Intel so much that they’d offer him a job, and within 15 years, Dham would be considered the “Father of the Pentium” for his pioneering work on the Pentium chips considered the guts and brains of the personal computer. He was also instrumental in the development of Intel’s first Flash Memory Technology. Ironically, in his later work with Intel rivals NexGen and Advanced Micro Devices, Dham would lead the push for K6, better known as the “Pentium Killer,” which would become the world’s fastest microprocessor and ultimately help drive down the overall cost of personal computers.
2. Ada King: Mother of Computer Programming
We think of computers as a relatively new science, but what is today regarded as the world’s first computer program was written by a mother of three … in 1840s England. Ada Byron (who after marriage to English nobleman William King earned the title Countess of Lovelace) was the daughter of the noted poet Lord Byron. Ada’s mother worried her daughter would grow up to be a poet like her father and, while Lady Lovelace was a prolific writer, she was also a skilled mathematician. While at a party, she met Charles Babbage, the inventor who created the concept of a programmable computer. At the time, Babbage was working on his proposal for an “analytical engine,” a machine boasting some of the characteristics of today’s computers (even though the first such general-purpose computer would not be developed until the 1940s). Lovelace began to communicate with Babbage, and the notes she created during an intense nine-month work period represent the first computer program, or algorithm, designed to be processed by a machine. Had the analytical engine been built, it would have run correctly off of Lovelace’s method. Though Lovelace leaves a lasting legacy — the U.S. Department of Defense even named a software language, Ada, after her in 1979 — her life was cut short by illness. Like her famous father before her, she passed away at the age of 36.
1. Ed Roberts: Father of the Personal Computer
There is no denying this Florida-born engineer created the fastest-growing (and most rapidly-changing) industry the modern world has known, and inspired many of the “greats” of technology that we know today. Roberts and his Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems started in 1969 by developing model rocket kits geared toward hobbyists, but gained traction with the development of the first four-function calculator. Boasting only eight digits in its display, a fully assembled calculator would have set you back nearly $300 in early 1970s dollars. When Texas Instruments entered the market, selling their products for less than it cost MITS to buy the materials needed to make its devices, Roberts began searching for a new product. Roberts and his team soon developed the first low-cost computer to garner a following — the Altair 8800. Intrigued by media coverage of the Altair in the January 1975 edition of Popular Electronics, two young men, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founded a company, Micro-Soft, to write BASIC programming language for it. A year later, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would start Apple to compete with MITS. It wasn’t enough for Roberts to revolutionize how we work, connect and communicate; at the age of 36, he settled in Georgia to farm and fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a doctor.
One More: Martin Cooper
As mentioned in a previous Listosaur story, Cooper led the team behind the development of the world’s first cellphone, which weighed in at a wrist-aching two and a half pounds. The former Motorola executive placed the first non-landline call (at least in public) before a bunch of reporters in New York City on April 3, 1973. Cooper called none other than his rival at Bell Labs, Joel S. Engel, to announce that he was calling from this portable phone with no unruly cords. What followed was, well, awkward silence from Engel, as well as a shift in the very way we communicate via phone, transitioning from calls made to a location to calls placed to a person.