It's easy to look at a laptop, an iPod, or a laser printer as nothing more than a tool to get work done with or to while away your free time on, but these and many other high-tech devices didn't fall off a tree. They emerged following years of hard work--and in some cases, an entire career devoted to a single technology--by inspired researchers, designers, and developers.
Our list of technology visionaries includes the guy who invented a way to store data in a portable form--and who almost got demoted as a result. It recognizes the woman who popularized the term "bug" after a moth flew into a computer relay. And it acknowledges a genius who might have saved modern gaming by inventing Jump Man.
So it's time to pay homage where homage is due. Here's our take on the 50 most important people in the recent history of technology--the most critical players (including a few forgotten heroes) who've been instrumental in crafting the last 50 years of technical innovation.
Our opinion doesn't have to be the last word on the subject, however. If you have additional nominees who deserve recognition, or if you want to chime in to agree with or reminisce about or rail against our choices, please add a comment to let us know.
1. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce
Photograph: Courtesy of Texas Instruments and Intel
Unlike most of the other multiperson entries on our list, Robert Noyce (left) and Jack Kilby didn't work together. But their common invention is still utterly crucial. In 1959, both men came up with the first integrated circuits--Kilby while he was at Texas Instruments, and Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor. The IC solved the problem of size that got worse and worse as the need to jam additional transistors into a device grew more and more critical. Packing them all into a single chip effectively ended the era of the room-size computer. Ultimately, Noyce's design based on silicon, rather than Kilby's based on germanium, became the standard--one that we still use today--but both designs were instrumental in pushing the technology forward. Kilby and Noyce are often overlooked, but the importance of their contribution to technology cannot be overstated. Nothing else on this list could exist without the underpinning of the integrated circuit.
2. Sergey Brin and Larry Page
What is the defining contribution to technology made by Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin, the fathers of Google? The company is the single most important business in Silicon Valley today, but of course search engines had existed long before Google came along. What impressed so many early fans was Google's relentless pursuit of refinement and accuracy in its search algorithm: Whereas other search engines' results tended to be laden with spam, Google's were generally on target. The company had lots of other tricks up its sleeve as well: The rapidly expanding Google universe now offers dozens of productivity and entertainment tools--from word processing to video--most of them free, underwritten by the company's ubiquitous ad-serving system.