Five People You've Never Heard Of, Who Invented Technology You Use Every Day

By Chris Mills on at

The laptop you're reading this on, the mouse you're already scrolling down with, even the pixels that render the text into images -- you use all of these on a nanosecond-basis, without a second thought for the pioneers who slaved to bring you these little nuggets of genius. It's time for that to change.

 

Russell Kirsch - The Pixel

You've probably read a little bit about the first image on the web -- this slightly weird CD cover of some scientist's wives. But what about the first ever image on a computer? That was the work of Russell Kirsch.

In 1957, Russell Kirsch was the lucky guy who had access to one of the first programmable computers in the world. Rather than using it for porn evil, he uploaded a cute baby photo of his darling offspring. To do so, Kirsch used a drum scanner and a photomultiplier tube to create a 176x176 pixel image, using 30,976 square pixels to represent his baby son. The photomultiplier translated parts of the image into black or white square pixels, with a 0 representing white and a 1 representing black.

Of course, this is where our tradition of using square pixels originates. In retrospect, Kirsch regrets his choice of a square and subsequent inflicting of blurriness on future generations:

“Of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility … but we used squares. It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.”

He's been setting out to make amends for his mistakes -- at the ripe old age of 81, Kirsch is pioneering the development of variable-size pixels to smooth over images.

 

Steve Wilhite -- The GIF

The GIF is undoubtedly the Marmite of the internet -- either you're a Tumblr-wielding, scooter-riding-cat-loving GIF fanatic, or a embittered proponent of still images still trying to recover your eyesight from violent GIF assaults. Either way, it's a pretty awesome piece of coding that's happily endured the test of time.

The man behind the code is Steve Wilhite. He created the GIF (he's adamant it's pronounced 'jif' by the way) when he worked for Compuserve back in 1987. Originally, it wasn't meant to be so much an animated format, more a replacement for the horrible black-and-white run-length encoding format that was the de facto standard back in Thatcher's time.

The GIF was unique at the time for a number of reasons: the animation it's now known for, but also for allowing interlacing, which made even a partially downloaded image recognisable, and therefore helping manage an internet that still relied on dial-up modems. And, of course, having images in colour was kinda handy too. The GIF went through a bit of a low in the noughties, what with full-on-video streaming becoming possible, but the rise of Tumblr and Reddit have seen it restored to pride of place. Love it or hate it, there's no escaping Wilhite's genius (?) any more.

 

Bill Moggridge -- The Laptop

Without trying to sound too much like an over-enthusiastic politian, making computing mobile was one of the big advances of the late 20th Century. Right on the bleeding edge of that was Bill Moggridge, who invented the very first laptop, and simeltaneously created a form factor that's still going strong today.

The Grid Compass computer -- yes, the one you see above -- was created back in 1982. Sure, it's a clunky bastard, but there's no denying the clamshell design -- even if the body of the thing does extend for a small playing field behind the screen.

It was pretty well received at the time, as well. Adopted by NASA (is there any better seal of approval?), it even made its way into space aboard the Discovery Shuttle in 1985.

 

Alfred Fielding -- Bubble Wrap

Bubble wrap had a slightly unlikely invention, back in a dingy New Jersey garage in 1957. Alfred Fielding and his Swiss sidekick were trying to invent a new plastic wallpaper (presumably aiming at the easy-to-hose-down-serial-killer's-dungeon market). Gluing two shower curtains together, they came up with something that was a bit crap for wallpaper, but it sparked the idea to make a plastic packing material.

The industry's boomed, and Fielding and his friend founded the Sealed Air Corporation, today with revenues somewhere north of £2 billion. Along the way, Fielding also got an honorary PhD in engineering, for creating the most addictive packaging in history*.

*not strictly true.

 

Russell Ohl -- The Semiconductor

Semiconductors form the beating heart of all modern electronics. They're used to produce diodes and transistors, without which there would be no electronic computers. It's no exaggeration to say that the discovery of semiconductors was the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century.

Like many good scientific advances, though, this one was completely by accident. Russell Ohl was a physicist working in Bell Labs during World War II. In those days, radio transmitters and receivers used electron tubes. Those didn't perform too well with higher frequencies, like those being used in radars and high-performance military transmitters. Ohl was messing around with a relatively old technology, cat's-whisker detectors, when he found that a cracked silicon crystal changed its resistance when exposed to light.

In fact, this was because of impurities that had formed a crude p-n (positive-type negative-type) barrier in the silicon. This discovery led to the first widespread adoption of diodes, paving the way for LEDs, solar cells, transistors, and ultimately pretty much anything electronic nowadays.

This week, we're celebrating unsung heroes and the people who dared to dream big, with The Dreamers. Bookmark this page for all related stories, or contact us here with tips.