The world’s greatest programmers of all time

The computer has revolutionized the world – no doubt about that. And programmers are responsible for this.

Yet, not all programmers are equal. While many have achieved great feats in the world of computer science, there are a few who have impacted us and the rest of humanity the most.

These elite hackers range from little known to famous, and they come from the most varied backgrounds. But what they have in common is the way they changed our lives through their work.

This post is dedicated to them.

World’s greatest programmers of all time by Impact

NameKnown forBornNationalityComments
Dennis RitchieC, Unix1941AmericanPassed on in 2011
Linus TorvaldsLinux1969Finnish AmericanSmiles a lot
Bill GatesWindows1955AmericanFormer world’s richest man
Bjarne StroustupC++1950Danish
Ken ThompsonUnix, Go1943American
Tim Berners LeeWWW1955United KingdomDirector of W3C
James GoslingJava1955CanadaWrite once, run anywhere
Richard StallmanGNU, FSF1953AmericanGNU/Linux, GPL
Guido van RossumPython1956NetherlandsThe benevolent dictator
Rasmus LerdorfPHP1968Canadian, DanishA more dynamic web
Satoshi NakamotoBlockchain??????????

1. Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie co-developed the Unix operating system with Ken Thompson and this is a great feat. But, it is his creation of the C programming language that puts him on top of this list. Because he impacted us the most.

Originally an enhancement of the B language, which he co-created, C grew to become the world’s most successful programming language. It powers countless applications, including the Linux kernel, which powers 67% of all web servers and 100% of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers.

Many programming languages also evolved from C, and they include Java, JavaScript, Google’s Go, the fast and powerful C++, C#, Perl, and Mozilla’s impressive Rust language. If you know these languages, then you should know just how much Dennis Ritchie’s C has impacted our world.

He passed on in 2011, but you can read a copy of his “C Programming Language” book to understand how brilliant he was. It is a book every coder should have, even those that don’t plan to use it.

Thank you, sir. And continue to rest.

2. Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds

“Just for fun” hit bookshelves around 2002, and it told Linus Torvalds’ story. Born to journalist parents, Torvalds grew up in Helsinki, Finland and in 1991 released the prototypes of the Linux operating system.

He released it for free and has continued to work on developing it to this day. This led to the wide adoption of the system for everything from desktops, web servers, Android, Chrome OS, and so on. He is also the creator of the Git revision control software.

Of course, the internet would have grown without Torvald’s free Linux. There is no doubt, however, that it would have taken a different path with OS and other licensing costs. Linux leveled the internet landscape by being free and allowed small players to compete with the giants.

3. Bill Gates

Bill Gates

This one needs no introduction, and that is exactly why he is also in the top spots. Of course, Bill Gates is a good programmer, but it is his business side we will be looking at.

He created the Microsoft Behemoth with Paul Allen in 1975 and the company has grown to over 150,000 employees worldwide, with $53 billion of operating income in 2020, $44.3 billion net income, and $301.3 billion in total assets.

In other words, Bill Gates showed the world that computer programmers, or geeks, could successfully go into business on their own and change the course of industries. Today, geeks continue to change the world using disruptive technologies, and they are making tons of money doing it.

4. Bjarne Stroustrup

Bjarne Stroustrup

C is a great language and you can do amazing stuff with it, especially when you use your imagination. But it lacks a few features, and that’s what Bjarne Stroustrup set out to deliver.

Bjarne Stroustrup’s C++ transformed the world of timing- and performance-critical software from video games to e-commerce websites, desktop applications, music sequencers, databases, and even telephone switching systems.

C++ is essentially C with classes. It then evolved into a full-blown object-oriented programming language, and with excellent memory management. Another feature that C lacked.

The language delivers the four features of OOP, which are abstraction, inheritance, encapsulation, and polymorphism to the C programmer. And this, in turn, has helped to create amazing applications, which may have never existed without it.

They include MySQL, Windows OS, Firefox browser, Maya 3D, Adobe Photoshop, Maya, lots of embedded systems that need to deliver high performance, and so many more.

5. Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Two major creations to Ken Thompson’s name are Unix and Go. He designed and developed the Unix operating system with Dennis Ritchie in the 1970s while working at Bell Labs. And more recently, he co-developed the Go language, while working at Google.

His development of Unix is important because of the Unix Philosophy, which has helped in the development of server environments. Linux, for instance, is a Unix clone. It is modular and uses simple, but specialized tools, which communicate with each other using pipes in the Shell.

Unix also impacted the academic community, since it was licensed and many groups came up with their versions like BSD, Solaris, and IBM’s AIX. It also contributed to the free software movement, online documentations, early networking systems, and the internet in general.

Go is a statically typed language and very similar to C. But it features many additions to make the coder more productive in a modern environment. These features include garbage collection, concurrency, and memory safety from C’s buffer overflows and pointer issues, among others.

6. Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee

On the 12th of March 1989, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee proposed a system for information management using computer networks. And in November of the same year, he implemented that system.

It was a communication between a network client and a server, using HTTP, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, over a network called “The Internet”.

Of course, there were previous computer networks back in those days. But these were often closed-off research systems for high-level academic research, and they were usually operated by bearded folks with fancy degrees.

Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web for the average Joe and showed people how to build websites. He built the world’s first website, the world’s first web browser, and the world’s first web server, which is the CERN HTTPd (HTTP daemon).

He also wrote the world’s first version of HTML and the rest is history. What a geek.

7. James Gosling

James Gosling

This Canadian computer scientist is the father of the Java programming language. And although Java doesn’t seem to be a big deal anymore, there is much more to it than most people realize.

Java is known as the Write Once, Run Anywhere language. So, you just write your program’s code only once and a user can execute it on any architecture. The alternative, of course, is to write specific code for every architecture you want your program to run on.

Although most computers today run on IBM’s x8086 architecture, it has not always been that way. Different operating environments was a big headache for software development and is the reason that Java became such a huge success.

8. Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

In September of 1983, Richard Stallman launched the GNU Project in the bid to create a Unix-like computing environment that comprises entirely free software.

To that effect, he also founded the Free Software Foundation and created the GPL (GNU General Public License) for distributing free software that the user could copy and modify as he or she wished.

The GNU Project and the FSF became the launchpad for the Linux OS into what it is today. The Project’s most notable packages include GNOME, Gimp, bash, tar, gzip, and grep.

Stallman also personally developed the GNU Compiler Collection or GCC for advancing software development on GNU-compatible systems. And he created the GNU Emacs, a crazy but powerful text editor.

Although he is currently embroiled in a controversial media scandal, his contributions to the world of computing and accessible software, remain what they are.

9. Guido van Rossum

Guido van Rossum

C-family languages are great and effective, but some people just can’t deal with them. Or, some people simply need something a little less confusing.

Guido van Rossum created the Python programming language in 1989 and it has since transformed many areas of computing, from Unix environments to becoming the favorite language for AI developers.

Python takes a different approach to program development, with its indenting, dynamic typing, and a comprehensive standard library. It also ships with an interpreter that is pre-installed and ready-to-go in many Linux systems.

10. Rasmus Lerdorf

Rasmus Lerdorf

The humble beginnings of the World Wide Web featured static HTML sites, that while they ushered in the new era of computing, left much to be desired.

One hacker that attempted to fix this desire is Rasmus Lerdorf. He wrote a collection of C programs that ran as the CGI or Common Gateway Interface for his HTML homepage server, and PHP was born.

Little did he know that his creation was set to transform the internet. PHP currently powers about 80% of the web’s servers, thanks to being free and open-source software. It is also a very beautiful language that is sweet to code.

11. Satoshi Nakamoto

Okay, we all know that Satoshi Nakamoto is presumably a pseudonym. But whether he, she, they, or it, that name changed humanity’s course when it published the first paper that introduced Bitcoin on October 31, 2008.

Needless to say, cryptocurrencies are now worth trillions of dollars and Satoshi Nakamoto is a well-deserved billionaire. But we seem to still be in the early phases of crypto disruptions, as the underlying blockchain technology designed for the Bitcoin currency, takes on a life of its own.

The artworld as well, is currently under disruption from non-fungible tokens, a blockchain-derived technology. Plus numerous other applications are also in active development. Even major companies from Wikimedia to Microsoft, Tesla, AT&T, and Burger King are accepting Bitcoins.

Whichever way it goes, it is obvious the world will never be the same again. Because of Satoshi Nakamoto.

Conclusion

Coming to the end of this greatest programmers list, it is obvious how bright each of their geeky minds was or is.

And as the world continues to rely on computerization, we pray that true hacker culture never dies. And may the benevolence of The Hacker Ethic continue to fuel the computer revolution of our beloved planet.

Nnamdi Okeke

Nnamdi Okeke is a computer enthusiast who loves to read a wide range of books. He has a preference for Linux over Windows/Mac and has been using Ubuntu since its early days. You can catch him on twitter via @bongotrax

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