Techies Give Thanks for 15 Trailblazers

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Techies Give Thanks for 15 Trailblazers

Techies Give Thanks for 15 TrailblazersBy Jeff Cogswell

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The Ancients

It may not be a compliment to call somebody "ancient," but what the heck, these guys are all dead, long dead. But thanks to their work a couple millennia ago, mathematics (and thus computer science) got a good start. We're talking the classics here: Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, as well other important people you might not have heard of, such as Al-Khwarizmi (father of Algebra), and several unknown people from various early cultures such as Egypt, India, China, as well Babylonia.

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Panini (4th Century BC)

Haven't heard of him? If you're a computer scientist, you probably have and don't know it. No, this isn't the guy who invented the grilled sandwich, the panini, which is actually an Italian word for a small bread roll. Rather, Mr. Pa?ini lived in India in the 4th Century BC, and created a formal grammar, which is strikingly similar to today's Backus-Naur Form (BNF) grammar used in computer science. And if that's not enough, his grammar had the power equivalent of a Turing machine.

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Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

In terms of science and technology, Ol' Isaac is perhaps the single most important person to have lived. Why? Because he discovered calculus. Without calculus, we can't do physics. But when Newton discovered calculus, he used it to discover the basic laws of physics. And notice what followed: The industrial revolution, which led to modern technology. And I'm not exaggerating. However, I should note that Newton didn't act alone in developing Calculus, as the next slide will show.

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Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)

Independent of Newton, Leibniz also developed many aspects of Calculus, and it was his notation that eventually became the standard. But he also built a working multiplying machine, and formalized what may be the smallest of all the work leading to modern-day technology: The binary number system. You can't make a useful number system with fewer digits than 2, and that's the system used by our computers today. (It was George Boole who, a century and a half later, would combine these concepts into Boolean logic, which was further instrumental to the design of modern computers.)

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

A programming language was named after him for a reason. He built a working calculating machine, in addition to offering many contributions to several fields of study including mathematics and physics, and sub-categories such as geometry, probability, hydraulics and hydrostatics.

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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Baggage is considered by many to be the Father of the Computer. That's quite an honor, but you wouldn't know it if you met him, as by the time he died, he was an old, unhappy, miserable, angry man. So while I'm thankful for his contributions, I'm also thankful I didn't have to be around him. He did manage to design on paper several machines which shared similarities to the computers we use today. Unfortunately, he never finished most of them, even though he started building several, and, as legend is told, that's one reason he was so angry. (Prozac didn't exist yet.)

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The Founders of Quantum Mechanics

You know many of their names: Faraday, Heisenberg, Schr??édinger, Planck, Einstein, and others. Because without their work, we wouldn't have the know-how to build the microprocessors we have today, with electrons racing through wires and transistors at nearly the speed of light. (And not only did Einstein discover formulas for things moving near the speed of light, he was given the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the photoelectric effect, which was instrumental in understanding quantum mechanics.)

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Alan Turing (1912-1954)

Turing, a Brit who only lived to be 41, helped the British government break the German ciphers during World War II. But he also provided one of the most important concepts in computer science: The Turing machine, which is a theoretical device that can be used to model the logic and capabilities of virtually any computer algorithm. Although Turing's description of the machine was strictly theoretical, today's computers are modern-day manifestations of a Turing machine. Unfortunately for Alan Turing, he lived in a time before modern culture, and before modern psychiatry existed, and his sexual orientation was considered a crime. He was convicted in the U.K. and sentenced to chemical castration, and he lost his security clearance to work on secret government projects. He later committed suicide.

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Donald Knuth (1938-)

Yes, he gave us early typesetting software such as TeX, but why I am I thankful for him? Because he's the man who taught most of us how to program computers-maybe not in person, but through his books that many of us read, and through the algorithms that we studied in school, algorithms that he developed.

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Bill Gates and Steve Jobs

Love them or hate them, you can't deny that they've changed our world as we know it today. I don't need to list their accomplishments; you know them. But let's not forget a few other modern-day luminaries as well that we should be glad have helped make our lives better, such as Linus Torvalds who gave us Linux, and Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web, and many more people.

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