Back to all articles

September 13, 2022

7 Pioneer Programmers You Hadn’t Heard Of

For Programmers’ Day, we tell you about seven lesser-known computer scientists and inventors that changed the world of programming.

Frida Chacin Kulak - Tech Writer



It is Programmers’ Day, assigned to be the 13th of September because it is the 256th day of the calendar year– 256 is the number of distinct values that can be represented with a byte!

On this occasion, we didn’t want to highlight the usual great historical figures of computer science and programming that you’ve probably heard so much about already; instead, this post is about seven more obscure programmers and inventors who, despite being less known than, say, Tim Berners-Lee or Alan Turing, greatly contributed to shaping the future of computers and tech, making it as it is today. 

Charles Babbage, Inventor of the First Mechanical Computer

You might have heard about Babbage already, who is probably the most recognized scientist on this list. An inspired Victorian-era inventor with a particular outspoken personality, he gathered fans across the continent and enemies in some of the most prominent British scientific institutions. He was a polemicist, seeking to reform universities and institutions from politics, making them more inclusive and more supportive of research and its applications; his Reflections on the Decline of Science and some of its Causes (1830), which attempted to reform the Royal Society, didn’t succeed because of how scathing it was, but led to his founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His industrialist views largely influenced the development of industry in the UK.

Babbage is most credited for his unrealised inventions of the difference engine, made to calculate values of polynomial functions, and the Analytical Engine, a more complex version with many more capabilities. This is where Ada Lovelace comes in, too: the two met when she was just 17, and she contributed papers, translations and ‘code’ for the punching cards the machine would use. While they both died before they saw the machine realized, Ada’s achievement was duly recognized years later.

John Kemeny, Co-Creator of BASIC

As the math department chairman at the university of Dartmouth, John Kemeny set out to facilitate programming literacy among students– all students, not just the ones in STEM. In the 1960s, the use of computers required writing custom software, a long and tiresome task that only specialized scientists learned. Kemeny and his fellow professor, Thomas E. Kurtz, set out to create a simplified programming language that could be picked up quickly, making the computer free and open-access to all students. 

After trials inventing languages like DARSIMCO and DOPE, they realized that getting quick feedback from the computer was a problem, and this also led to the invention of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System, a system for a single machine to divide its processing power among many users, and for which the BASIC language was written.

Grace Hopper, Creator of the First Compiler

Grace Hopper was one of the first computer scientists, as well as a Rear Admiral in the US Navy, being one of the most decorated women to date. Like Kemeny and Kurtz, she was driven to seek out an easier way to input commands into computers, rather than using these complex programming languages that were impractical, difficult to learn, and limiting for anyone that didn’t dedicate years to learn them.

After serving on the MARK 1 and UNIVAC (the first general purpose computer for business applications on the market!) programming teams, she went on to push for a universal programming language that could be used across machines: despite opposition, she published her first paper on compilers in 1952, and created the A compiler soon after. Still not believed by her peers, she went on to develop compiler-based programming languages like MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC, which all resulted in the creation of COBOL in 1959, a compiled programming language that became the first common business programming language and is still used to this day.

Deane Blazie, Pioneer in Assistive Technology

One of the most impactful engineers in the blindness assistive technology industry, Deane Blazie was an engineer who went on to start Maryland Computer Services and pioneer the creation of hardware and software to help blind people use computers effortlessly. While he was abled, his company employed and supported blind engineers who helped develop a plethora of tools, like screen readers, full-speech talking terminals, and automatic note-takers and Braille printers. 

Mentored by Tim Cranmer, creator of the first auditory calculator, Blazie went on to support the work of other engineers like Ted Henter and Bill Joyce, who in 1995 developed the well-known screen reader JAWS, the only screen reader on the market and the dominant one for decades (until 2019).

Konrad Zuse, Inventor of the Modern Computer

Konrad Zuse is regarded as the first person to invent and program an electrical computer, the Z3, as early as 1941. Most of his developments happened during World War II, and a number of his plans and inventions (like the Z3 itself) were destroyed by consequences of the war, or ignored by engineers in other countries: even in his own natal Germany, his research was left aside as ‘strategically unimportant’. Even as he planned models of new computers, like the z4, he realized machine code was too complicated, and devised what might have been the first high level programming language, Plankalkül, and the first real computer chess engine.

Though his research was hindered by the historical moment, Zuse’s inventions and papers were heard internationally after the war, helping the development of later computers and programming languages.

Mary Allen Wilkes, Co-Creator of the First Personal Computer

Mary Ann Wilkes became a programmer in the 1960’s, back when programming was considered a boring, detail-oriented, and unimportant task, left for women to do. She worked tirelessly on complex ‘assembly languages’ that required her to write detailed, complex instructions for the computer without making a single mistake.

In 1961, she joined the team who would go on to create the LINC 1, the first computer that would fit in a small room, have its own keyboard and screen, and not require awkward processes like using punch cards. She was assigned the task of creating the software.

When the project moved to St. Louis, she refused to relocate, and was sent her own LINC, making her one of the first people to have their own computer at home!

Hugo Gernsback, Inventor of the 3D TV Goggles

Hugo Gernsback was none other than the publisher of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories– the Hugo Awards are named after him! But he was also an inventor, holding patents for devices like a combined electric hair brush and comb, a battery-powered handheld mirror, or, most notably, television eyeglasses, or ‘teleyeglasses’! The idea came to him in 1936 and he dismissed it at first, but ended up building a mock-up nearly 30 years later.

As one image was projected for each eye, this allowed for 3D technology, at a weight of just 140 grams. As it turns out, VR glasses are not such a recent invention!

Help shape the future of computers like these historical pioneers, and acquire the skills you need to start your career in Tech with a bang: check out our Bootcamps!

Related Articles

Recommended for you

Ready to join?

More than 10,000 career changers and entrepreneurs launched their careers in the tech industry with Ironhack's bootcamps. Start your new career journey, and join the tech revolution!