Top 11 Computer Programmers of All Time

The problem with top 10 lists is they never include everyone, but this one goes to 11. My son helped me put this one together. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Throughout the ages, many great minds have arisen from the masses and changed the course of humanity for better or for worse. In the span of only a century humankind has advanced from barely being able to prototype our own armored combat vehicles to now being able to maneuver unmanned combat aeroplanes from the comfort of our own living room on the other side of the world using our watches and phones. How is it that we have managed such a radical feat? It is thanks to some of the greatest minds of our time; computer programmers.

Lady Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace portrait

Lady Ada Lovelace

Computer programming first started with Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, born Byron; or as most of the world knows her, Ada Lovelace. Back in the mid 1840s, Charles Babbage hypothesized and attempted the creation of the Analytical Engine, an early mechanical general-purpose computer. His seminar about the engine was translated by Lovelace through a commision of Charles Wheatstone, and in the process of her translating she added quite a few notes including an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to calculate Bernoulli numbers. This algorithm is cited as the first “computer code” as it was a process that was written for the purpose of a machine calculating independent of human correction.

I am more than ever now the bride of science. Religion to me is science, and science is religion. In that deeply-felt truth lies the secret of my intense devotion to the reading of God’s natural works. It is reading Him. His will — His intelligence –Lovelace


Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper, USN

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USN

Fast forward about a century later and now computers are few and far between and can only do arithmetic, at least, that’s what they say. Grace Hopper however chose not to listen what everyone else was saying the limitations of computers were, and that enabled her to build the world’s first ever compiler, A-0. Even once she had completed her compiler, it took a full four years before anyone even believed her that it even existed. Apparently the impossible does happen sometimes.

If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission. –Hopper

Niklaus Wirth

Niklaus Wirth

Niklaus Wirth

Niklaus E. Wirth is a Swiss computer scientist who achieved his fame through the creation of several different computer languages, Algol W, Euler, Modula, Modula-2, Oberon, Oberon-2, Oberon-07, and Pascal, and due to the widespread use of his book, written in tandem with Kathleen Jensen, The Pascal User Manual And Report served as a basis for many other languages such as Delphi. In addition, in 1984 he won the Turing Award for the number of useful computer languages he created, this award is generally seen as the highest honor in computer programing.

Software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster. (AKA Wirth’s Law)

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton during the Apollo program

Margaret Hamilton (photo by NASA)

Margaret Hamilton was the Director of the Software Engineering Division for the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory during the time that her division developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. Also, in 1986 she became the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a company based around the Universal Systems Language.

The photo is Hamilton standing next to the code she wrote for the Apollo program.

Her Code Got Humans on the Moon—And Invented Software Itself” Wired Magazine, 13-Oct-2015

Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth (photo by Jacob Appelbaum)

Donald Knuth (photo by Jacob Appelbaum)

Donald Knuth is known as the “father of the analysis of algorithms” for many reasons. Take his multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming for example. This comprehensive monograph takes many of computing’s biggest algorithms and then explains and analyzes them in order to help set forth a compendium of computer science. He is also the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system, the related METAFONT font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.


Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do. – Knuth

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie (photo by Denise Panyik-Dale)

Dennis Ritchie (photo by Denise Panyik-Dale)

Dennis Ritchie created the C programming language and was a partner in creating the Unix operating system. For his work on Unix, him and his partner received the Turing Award in 1983, the Hamming Medal in 1990, and the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 1999.


Quote: “[C has] the power of assembly language and the convenience of … assembly language.”

Homepage at Bell Labs


Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Kenneth Lane “Ken” Thompson invented the B programming language, the direct predecessor to C invented by Dennis Ritchie, and was one of the creators/early developers of the Plan 9 operating systems. Since 2006, Thompson has worked for Google, where he was a partner in the invention of the Go programming language. Notably, he also did a fairly large amount of computer chess work, including the creation of endgame tablebases and the chess machine Belle.


Bjarne Stroustrup

Bjarne Stroustrup

Bjarne Stroustrup

Bjarne Stroustrup is the creator and early developer of C++, a descendant of Ritchie’s C programing language. He was also elected member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2004, a Fellow of the ACM, an IEEE Fellow, and a Fellow of the Computer History Museum on the basis of his inventing the C++ programing language.

A program that has not been tested does not work. –Stroustrup

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee (photo by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation)

Tim Berners-Lee (photo by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation)

Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS, AKA Tim Berners-Lee, is the creator of the World Wide Web in the year 1989, a senior researcher and holder of the founders chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a member of the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and was named a member of the board of trustees of the Ford  Foundation.

I think in general it’s clear that most bad things come from misunderstanding, and communication is generally the way to resolve misunderstandings, and the Web’s a form of communications, so it generally should be good. –Berners-Lee

Anders Hejlsberg

Anders Hejlsberg (photo by DBegley)

Anders Hejlsberg (photo by DBegley)

Anders Hejlsberg created Turbo Pascal. He is also the chief architect of Delphi, C#, and TypeScript. In 2001 he received the Dr. Dobb’s Excellence in Programming Award for his contributions to the world of software development. Anders is from Copenhagen, Denmark and graduated from the Technical University of Denmark.

When asked about all he’s accomplished in the world of software development he famously said “we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.” When discussing the influences of previous languages on new languages he said “good ideas don’t just go away.”

Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds (photo by Krd)

Linus Torvalds (photo by Krd)

Linus Torvalds is one of the most influential developers of recent time as the creator and long-time principal developer of the Linux kernel, which later became the kernel for operating systems such as GNU, Android, and Chrome OS. He also has received many many awards: C&C Prize (2010), EFF Pioneer Award (1998), Hall of Fellows of the Computer History Museum (2008), IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (2014), Internet Hall of Fame (2012), Lovelace Medal (2000), Millennium Technology Prize (2012), Takeda Award (2001), Vollum Award (2005), and the World Technology Award (2002).

I’m personally convinced that computer science has a lot in common with physics. Both are about how the world works at a rather fundamental level. The difference, of course, is that while in physics you’re supposed to figure out how the world is made up, in computer science you create the world. Within the confines of the computer, you’re the creator. You get to ultimately control everything that happens. If you’re good enough, you can be God. On a small scale. –Torvalds

Who did we miss? Who would you add?

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18 Responses to Top 11 Computer Programmers of All Time

  1. “You” (the reader) 😉

  2. aplikmuj says:

    Me – definitely. Maybe worth mentioning Charles Simonyi and Robert Carr.

  3. Seb C says:

    Great list, choices are really good. Shame there is no room to include John Backus. The first really widespread high-level language was Fortran,

  4. Fikret says:

    Maybe Jim Starkey? 🙂

  5. Dijkstra, definitely. Arguably the most important of the founders of computer science.

  6. My vote for Edsger Dijkstra too.

  7. Mike says:

    Perhaps Alan Turing?
    First one to build a useful computer and crack a code 😉

  8. ^^Bunp for Alan Turing.

    Also, thought I expect some disagreement on this point, I would suggest Bill Gates. Despite what you may think of him for his MS practices, he actually was a great coder. It’s somewhat difficult to gauge because there is no one product on which he worked exclusively, and is therefore granted credit, however, he is said to have contributed heavily to early DOS and Windows, and lets not forget the BASIC interpreter that many of us 30-40 y/olds cut our teeth on.

  9. Wouter says:

    I was also expecting Dijkstra in this list.
    And I expected GIT to be mentioned in Torvald’s paragraph.

    And somebody should really do an interview with Wirth, and have him talk about Delphi. Did he ever play around with it? What does he think about it? Has he ever been contacted by Borland for advice? What would he change? Which modern languages does he admire?

  10. Lennard says:

    I am sorry to say, but I find the introduction to the article a bit questionable. I do not think that it is a feat to be able to wage war more comfortably, and it is certainly nothing I would be proud of as a programmer.

    Anyway, thumbs up for E. Dijkstra.

  11. We can’t just have eleven, this list needed a hundred.

  12. Alain Bastien says:

    Is Bill Gates a developer ?

  13. Mark J. Wallin says:

    Linus Torvalds? Didn’t he get hit by a bus?

  14. Doug Newton says:

    Agree with Dijkstra.

    I would also add Ken Iverson.

  15. Graeme Webster says:

    I am so glad Dennis Ritchie is listed. For their work on Unix and C, the creators should be awarded Nobel Prizes. Unix is incredibly old, and remains the best operating system, with no sign that it is going to be replaced. And C is the mother of most of our languages today, with errant sons that fight to replace it (and fail) or that simply build on it.

  16. Jost Riedel says:

    There is a lot of other good and influential programmers, e.g. Alan Perlis and Guy L. Steele.

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