IT greats: Who is the greatest?

To mark our 40th anniversary Computer Weekly asked you, our readers, to vote for the individuals, organisations, hardware and software that have had the most beneficial impact on our industry over the past four decades.

We asked Computer Weekly readers to vote for who they consider to be the greatest people and technologies of the past 40 years of IT. Myles Hewitt and Cliff Saran introduce the results

To mark our 40th anniversary Computer Weekly asked you, our readers, to vote for the individuals, organisations, hardware and software that have had the most beneficial impact on our industry over the past four decades.

In each of the four categories in our IT Greats poll we asked you to select from a shortlist of 10 choices, representative of the spectrum of IT developments during the first 40 years of Computer Weekly.

Everything from the personalities who have driven IT's remarkable growth to hardware breakthroughs, innovative programming and software architectures, the rise and fall of giant hardware and software companies, and the impact of the online revolution.

We also asked you to add your own suggestions, and your nominations have highlighted the enormous range of people, technologies and organisations that have placed our industry not only at the heart of almost every business and every service on the planet, but in the homes and even the pockets of billions of individuals around the globe.

On the following 12 pages we reveal the results of the IT Greats poll and review the contributions to IT made by the winners and the runners-up, together with a look at what readers saw as the other major forces in IT.

IT has made a long and fascinating journey from the early days of commercial IT, or data processing as it was known back in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the trends which have resulted in today's ever more connected IT world were clearly visible back in 1966 when Computer Weekly was first published.

The front page news in Computer Weekly's first edition was that the Atomic Energy Authority had installed 160 remote keyboard stations to connect to its IBM 360 mainframe in Harwell, while abroad the Oscar Sinigaglia steelworks in Italy linked its Univac 1004 computers over a 50-bits-per-second network.

In those days before social and legislative change, advertisers had no embarrassment in advertising, for example, for computer programmers who should be "men in the age range 23 to 28 years".

Today, while technology has forged ahead, the dearth of women working in IT and the fact that it has taken this long to bring in anti-ageism legislation demonstrate that it is a lot easier to change technologies than it is to change attitudes.

Meanwhile, inflation has made salaries sound a bit more attractive. The starting salary for those 23 to 28-year-old male programmers had a lower limit of £735 per year.

But at least most employers were willing to train in those days. The advertisement for a "male" supervisor "to control and co-­ordinate the day-to-day operation of an IBM punched card installation" was promised "thorough training in computer techniques".

Such in-depth training was quite usual in the 1960s and 1970s, with employers accepting that building staff skills could only benefit the whole industry.

It would be impossible for the 1966 computer programmer on his starting salary of less than £1,000 to imagine the vast fortunes and global fame of today's most successful IT innovators and entrepreneurs.

IT Greats such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates often enjoy greater fame worldwide than the biggest rock and film stars - and they certainly have a lot more cash.

Innovators and industry leaders from earlier times, such as Ken Olsen, inventor of the minicomputer, were certainly highly respected within the industry, but they were far from famous in the world outside, with lifestyles that appear almost frugal alongside many of today's IT Greats.

When it comes to technology IT Greats, the importance of connectivity cannot be underestimated - and that means connectivity not simply between machines or software systems, but between the people and the organisations that build them, often creating de facto or mutually agreed standards in the process.

The fact that today we can connect to anyone else on the planet using an IP link is testimony to the value of standards in making IT pervasive. IBM is rightly an IT Great, not only dominating IT 40 years ago, but for many years before and since.

But with its use of PC-Dos, a version of MS-Dos, as the operating system for the phenomenally successful IBM PC it also single-handedly lifted another IT Great, Microsoft, from relative obscurity to the starting grid for Bill Gates' drive for world domination.

It is because of the innovative work of the early pioneers and the technologies they created that we can reap the benefits of a global network of powerful interconnected computers. But who and what are the real IT Greats of the past 40 years - the most significant personalities, the organisations with the greatest influence, the revolutionary hardware and the most innovative software?

Read article: Journey to the future

Read article: Who is the greatest

Read article: Driving forces: Top 10 greatest IT people

Read article: Chips with everything: Hardware top 10

Read article: The soft machine at the heart of IT: Software top 10

Read article: Innovation is the key to greatness: The top 10 organisations

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