20 Greatest Computer Programmers Of All Time

Computers are very complex machines, yet people operate them without any technical skills. They just interact with the graphical interface and all the background process is usually hidden. Well, every single element you are seeing on your desktop is created by some genius developer. And, today we are highlighting these brilliant minds from all across the world.

These days, computer programmers are the new rock stars. They are changing the world with every new line of successfully written code. Few world-class coders have influenced people to become a better programmer. See the list and if you are a programmer then tell us who is your inspiration.

20. David Patterson

Who is he: David Patterson is a computer scientist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

What he has done: Patterson is known for his contribution to RISC processor (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) design and for his research on RAID (Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks) and NOW (Network of Workstations).

Achievements: He received the Eckert–Mauchly Award, Karl Karlstrom Outstanding Educator and ACM Distinguished Service Award.

19. John Carmack

Who is he: John Carmack is a game programmer and co-founder and former technical director of Id Software.

What he has done: He was the lead programmer of the Id video games Doom, Rage, Commander Keen and their sequels. He is best known for his innovations in 3d graphics, especially for Reverse algorithm for shadow volumes. Carmack popularized the use of several techniques in computer graphics such as adaptive tile refresh, binary space partitioning, raycasting, surface caching and MegaTexture technology.

Achievements: He was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (twice), the Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards and Game Developers Conference Lifetime Achievement award for his pioneering work.

Read: 13 Most Influential and Famous Video Game Designers

18. Donald Ervin Knuth

Who is he: Donald Knuth is a mathematician, computer scientist the author of The Art of Computer Programming. He has been called the father of the analysis of algorithms.

What he has done: Donald Knuth worked on the development of analysis of the computational complexity of algorithms and formal mathematical techniques for it. He popularized the term asymptotic notation. He created the TeX computer typesetting system, WEB, and CWEB computer programming systems to encourage literate programming.

Achievements: Turing Award, Grace Murray Hopper Award, National Medal of Science, Faraday Medal, Kyoto Prize and John von Neumann Medal.

17. Guido van Rossum

Who is he: Guido van Rossum is a computer programmer, known as the author of the Python programming language.

What he has done: In the early days, he wrote a glob() routine to BSD Unix and worked on ABC programming language. He developed Python while working for Google continues to oversee the Python development process, making important decisions where necessary.

Achievements: Rossum received a NLUUG Award the 2001 Award for the Advancement of Free Software for his work on Python.

16. James Arthur Gosling

Who is he: James Gosling is a Canadian computer scientist, known as the father of the Java programming language.

What he has done: James developed a multi-processor version of Unix, several compilers and mail systems before joining Sun Microsystems. He invented the Java programming language and implemented the Java’s original compiler and virtual machine in 1994. He also made contributions to several other software systems including Gosling Emacs and NeWS.

Major Achievements: Gosling was awarded with The Economist Innovation Award,  IEEE John von Neumann Medal and he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2007.

15. Niklaus Wirth

Who is he: Niklaus Wirth is a Swiss computer scientist who was made a fellow of the Computer History Museum for influential work in algorithms and programming languages.

What he has done: Wirth is known for developing numerous programming languages including Pascal, Modula, and for establishing several classical topics in the software engineering field. He was the chief designer of Algol W, Euler, Modula, Modula-2, Pascal, Oberon, Oberon-2 and Oberon-7. He also worked on Lola digital hardware design and simulation system.

Achievements: He was honored with Turing Award, SIGPLAN Programming Languages Achievement Award and Marcel Benoist Prize.

14. Alan Curtis Kay

Who is he: Alan Curtis Kay is a computer scientist who has been elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Arts.

What he has done: Alan is best known for his early pioneering work on object oriented programming and windowing Graphical User Interface (GUI) design. Brian is also the coiner of phase: The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Major Achievements: Alan received ACM Turing Award for his work on object-oriented programming, UPE Abacus Award and UdK 01-Award  for pioneering the GUI.

13. John McCarthy

Who is he: John McCarthy was a cognitive scientist and computer scientist, who coined the term Artificial Intelligence.

What he has done: John developed the Lisp programming language family, popularized timesharing and worked on the design of the ALGOL programming language. He was very influential in the early development of Artificial Intelligence. He invented the Garbage Collection method to solve the problem of Lisp, which later became the programming language of choice for AI applications.

Major Achievements: He was honored with Turing Award, Kyoto Prize, National Medal of Science, Computer Pioneer Award and IJCAI Award for Research Excellence.

12. Thomas Eugene Kurtz

John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz in 1946 | Credit: Dartmouth College Library

Who is he: Thomas Kurtz is a computer scientist and a retired Dartmouth professor who implemented the concept of Time sharing.

What he has done: He developed the BASIC programming language to allow non-experts users to interact with the computer. He and John Kemeny cofounded the company called True BASIC, Inc to market True BASIC, which is an updated version of the language. This programming language became widespread on microcomputers, which allowed small developers and business owners to develop custom software on computers, all by their own.

Major Achievements: Kurtz was honored with AFIPS Pioneer Award and IEEE Computer Science Pioneer Award.

11. John George Kemeny

Credit: Dartmouth College Library

Who is he: John Kemeny is a computer scientist, mathematician and educator best known for developing BASIC programming language with Thomas Kurtz.

What he has done: Kemeny pioneered the use of computers for ordinary people. He invented BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language in 1964, after experiments with the LGP-30. He also developed DTSS (Dartmouth Time-Sharing System) which is one of the world’s first timesharing systems.

Major Achievements: He received the Computer Pioneer Award in 1985.

10. Grace Hopper

Who is she: Grace Hopper was a US Navy rear admiral and a computer scientist. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer.

What she has done: Hopper invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. She popularized the methodology of machine independent programming language, which led to the development of COBOL. She is also credited for popularizing the term debugging for fixing machine glitches.

Major Achievements: She was the first woman in the world who got her name in Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, Honorary Doctor of Science from Marquette University and National Medal of Technology (1991).

Read: 18 Greatest Female Scientists Of All Time

9. John Backus

John Backus at control panel of 60-inch cyclotron Photographed by Donald Cooksey in 1939 

Who is he: John Backus was a computer scientist, best known as a developer of FORTRAN. He received an M.S in mathematics in 1950, from Colombia University.

What he has done: Backus directed the team that invented FORTRAN, the first widely used high level programming language. He invented BNF (Backus-Naur form), a notation to define formal language syntax. He also popularized the term functional programming language.

Major Achievements: Backus received W.W. McDowell Award, National Medal of Science, ACM Turing Award, Draper Prize and named an IBM Fellow.

8. Bill Gates

Who is he: The man who needs no introduction. How could I leave out the world’s richest programmer whose software is used by the whole world.

What he has done: For the first 5 years at Microsoft, Gates personally oversaw every single line of code that the company sent out, often fixing ones he deemed buggy or incorrect. In the early days, he and Paul Allen wrote a full BASIC language interpreter in assembly language for a computer they didn’t even have access to, which had only 4k bytes of memory. They wrote it on PDP-10 running on Intel 8080 emulator.

Major Achievements: He was honored with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society and Bower Award for Business Leadership.

Read: Inspiring People Who Changed Some Most Common Viewpoints

7. Brian Kernighan

Who is he: Brian Kernighan is a computer scientist who worked at Bell Labs. Early in a career, he was a software editor for Prentice Hall International.

What he has done: He developed Unix OS with Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. He authored numerous Unix programs including cron and ditroff for Version 7. Kernighan is a coauthor of AMPL and AWK programming language. He also devised heuristic of the travelling salesman problem and graph partitioning (both are NP complete problems).
Brian is also the coiner of the well-known expression “What You See Is All You Get”(WYSIAYG).

Major Achievements: He won INFORMS Computing Society Prize in 1993, and received many Teacher Awards throughout his career.

6. Ken Thompson

Who is he: Ken Thompson is a pioneer of computer science and hacker community. He is best known for designing and implementing the Unix operating system.

What he has done: Thompson developed the original Unix OS with Ritchie. He invented B programming language and was one of the early developers of Plan 9 operating system. He also invented Go programming language while working for Google. Moreover, Thompson worked on UTF-8 encoding, endgame tablebases and regular expressions

Major Achievements: He was honored with Turing Award, Japan Prize, IEEE Emanuel R. Piore Award, Computer Pioneer Award and National Medal of Technology.

5. Tim Berners-Lee

Who is he: Tim Berners-Lee is a computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He is the director of W3C, Web Science Research Initiative and a senior researcher and holder of the Founders Chair (MIT).

What he has done: In 1989, Tim made a proposal for an information management system and he successfully implemented the communication between an HTTP client and server via the internet. He is also a key figure behind data.gov.uk, a UK government project to open up all data acquired for official work for free reuse.

Major Achievements: Tim was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his outstanding work, honored with Software System Award, Pride of Britain and Young Innovator of the Year (1995).

4. Bjarne Stroustrup

Who is he: Bjarne Stroustrup is a computer scientist, research professor, works at Morgan Stanley. He was a head of Bell Labs’ large scale programming research department.

What he has done: Bjarne Stroustrup worked alongside Dennis Ritchie co-developing the C language. In 1978, he began developing C++ language (later called C with Classes). He wrote its definition, produced the first implementation and designed all its major facilities. Stroustrup also wrote the textbook for the language he developed, The C++ programming language.

Major Achievements: He was awarded with William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, Grace Murray Hopper Award and he was made a fellow of Computer History Museum for his C++ invention.

3. Linus Torvalds

Who is he: Linus Torvalds is a software engineer, project coordinator and hacker. He is the man behind the Linux operating system.

What he has done: He has written the Linux kernel code (approx 2%) and the revision control system Git. Many popular OS including Ubuntu, Fedora and Android are based on Linux. Torvalds holds the “Linux” trademark and monitors the use of it.

Major Achievements: He was honored with the Millennium Technology Prize, along with Shinya Yamanaka for creating an open source operating system. He also received an EFF Pioneer Award, Lovelace Medal from the British Computer Society and Vollum Award from Reed College.

Read: 25 Biggest Inventions in Computer Science | The History

2. Dennis Ritchie

Who is he: Dennis Ritchie was a revolutionary computer scientist who played a pivotal role in developing “C” programming language and Unix operating system. He was employed by Lucent Technologies & Bell Labs and defended his PhD thesis on ‘Program Structure and Computational Complexity’. However, he never officially received his PhD degree.

What he has done: He developed “C” programming language on which many currently used machine language and technology are based, including your PS4/Xbox. Ritchie created a multiuser operating system called Unix. He is also known for developing ALTRAN, B, BCPL and Multics.

Major Achievements: Ritchie was honored with Turing Award, Hamming Medal from the IEEE, Computer Pioneer Award, Computer History Museum Fellow and Harold Pender Award.

1. Alan Mathison Turing

Who is he: Alan Turing was a computer scientist, mathematician, cryptanalyst and logician. He has been called the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.

What he has done: During World War II, he devised numerous techniques for breaking German ciphers. Turing built an electromechanical machine that could find settings of the Enigma machine. He formalized the concepts of computation and algorithm with the Turing machine, a machine that can be adapted to simulate the logic of any algorithms.

Major Achievements: He was honored with the Smith’s Prize, Officer of the Order of the British Empire and Fellow of Royal Society. Since 1966, Turing Award has been given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery for contributions to the computing community.

Read: 16 Famous and Greatest Mathematicians

Update – Programmers Suggested By Our Readers

John von Neumann: is a mathematician, physicists, inventor and programmer. He made a major contribution in linear programming, stochastic computing and self-replicating machines. Neumann has also played a key role in the development of game theory, the concept of cellular automata and the universal constructor.

Steve Wozniak: single-handedly designed Apple-I and Apple-II computers in the late 1970s and these two machines contributed significantly to the microcomputer revolution.

Fabrice Bellard: is best known as the creator of QEMU and FFmpeg software projects. He developed a number of other programs, including a small C compiler (3kB in size).

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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11 comments
  • Ehem… is this about programmers or computer scientists? Turing can’t be considered as a programmer.

    • Turing introduced the concept of “Algorithm”, “Computation” and “Artificial Intelligence”, so it’s worth mentioning him.

  • […] greatest computer programmers of all time {$excerpt:n} submitted by /u/vswar [link] [comments] Source: […]

    • Without Ben Franklin (or any other earlier pioneer of electricity) there would be none of them, but that doesn’t mean those guys were great programmers.

  • Turing first? Are you kidding me? He wasn’t a programmer, he built the hardware. Yes, that was similar at that time, but in that case #1 should be the maker of the first programmable computer on the planet.

    And his name is Konrad Zuse. He made the first programmable computer named “Z3” and programmed it. How come that nobody knows his name? Is it because he worked for Nazis? So what, he was still the first.

    Let’s just say that his electromechanical computer had a floating-point unit!! Yeah, electromechanical FPU. Now fast forward 40 years to Intel’s 8086 and 80286 and 80386sx….. neither of which had a floating-point unit.

    So, Konrad Zuse is definitely number 1. First programmable computer in 1941. And with a FPU. Hats down.

    Regarding Bill Gates, that’s just stupid. He’s like millionth programmer in the world. Or lower.