About cyber geeks, gurus and geniuses

On June 30, 1999, Palau, a small island group in the West Pacific, issued a 25-stamp sheet titled “The Information Age: Visionaries in the Twentieth Century” (Scott 512, Michel 1496-1520).

The sheet consists of five rows of five stamps (each having a 33c denomination) depicting well-known personalities in the Information Technology (IT) industry who, with a few exceptions, have been portrayed for the first time ever on a stamp. Each stamp shows the visionary’s name, portrait and the reason for inclusion in this issue.

Row 1

William Gibson, “Cyberspace”

(Row 1 : stamp 1)

Gibson, who was born in 1948 near Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, USA, is a science fiction author. In his 1984 novel Neuromancer he coined the word “cyberspace”. This remarkable book helped launch the cyberpunk movement (a sub-genre in science fiction literature that focuses on the growing intrusiveness of technology, especially computer technology).
Today, the term “cyberspace” is applied to the global conglomerate of computer systems, known as the Internet, but in science fiction it originally meant the complete integration between man and computer, where man could interact with objects and data verbally and even physically.
Gibson’s Neuromancer, for which he received a number of science fiction awards, was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Danny Hillis, Massively Parallel Processing


(Danny) Hillis was born in 1956 in Baltimore,  Maryland, USA. He graduated from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge) where he designed computer–oriented toys and games. He even built a computer composed entirely of Tinkertoys which could play tic-tac-toe (it is now on display at the Boston Computer Museum).
Hillis, also known as “the Genius”, is an inventor, scientist, author and engineer. In 1985 he designed a massively parallel computer with 64,000 processors, which concept is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also has designed RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) disk array technology and holds many patents. He co-founded Thinking Machines Corp. which was the first company to build and market such systems.
He has been vice-president Research & Development at The Walt Disney Corporation since 1996 and has received numerous awards, including the Hopper Award for his contributions to computer science.

Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer


Stephen Gary Wozniak was born in 1950 in San Jose, California, USA. He displayed an early interest in computers, which was encouraged by his father, an electrical engineer. After dropping out of college, he went to work for Hewlett-Packard in 1971, and in his spare time created computer graphics for video games. He did this together with a former high school friend Steve Jobs. Jobs persuaded Wozniak that they should work together on a marketable computer design. With their revolutionary invention, Apple I, built in Job’s parents’ garage, the two Steves formed the Apple Computer Company, which was launched on April 1, 1976. The Apple I, of which only a few hundred were sold, was soon followed by the Apple II, Lisa and Macintosh. Wozniak also played a major role in designing the floppy disk.
After a plane crash in 1981, which caused him to suffer temporarily from amnesia, Wozniak took a two-year sabbatical and left Apple, but he returned in 1983. After a series of disagreements with Jobs, he left the company permanently in 1985. Since leaving Apple, Woz (as he is called by his friends) has stepped out of the limelight. He now teaches school kids how to use computers and introduces them to the magic of the Internet. Woz is doing what he enjoys.

Steve Jobs, Apple Computer


Steven Paul Jobs, who was born in 1955, attended Homestead High School in Cupertino, California, where he befriended Steve Wozniak. After dropping out of college he joined Atari, where he designed video games. After a few months he resigned and trekked around India seeking spiritual enlightenment. Upon returning he found Wozniak working at Hewlett-Packard and building computers in his spare time to impress his friends in the Homebrew Computer Club. Jobs persuaded his friend to launch a business based on his friend’s latest invention, the Apple I.
The Apple Computer Company, founded on April 1, 1976, quickly became a multi-million dollar company, that dominated the market. However, when in 1981 IBM joined the race with its IBM Personal Computer (PC), Apple began losing ground.
In 1979, on visiting the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Jobs was shown a prototype of the new Alto computer, featuring a graphical user interface and a mouse. Back in the office, he modified the specifications for the Lisa (named after his daughter), which was later launched with a mouse and a point-and-click interface. Xerox unsuccessfully sued Apple for this breach of ethics. Later Apple sued Microsoft for using a graphical interface on its Windows operating system. Like Xerox before, Apple lost this time.
Jobs left Apple in 1985 and founded NeXT Software. In 1996, when Apple bought NeXT for $400 million, Jobs was invited back to Apple and became its interim CEO. In January 2000, he was appointed permanent CEO of Apple Computers.

Nolan Bushnell, Atari, Inc.


Nolan Bushnell, who was born in 1943, is a legendary name in Silicon Valley. As an engineering student at the University of Utah, Bushnell managed to get into the university’s computer room at night to play Space War on its mainframe. “I didn’t invent video games. They had already been invented on the $7 million computer. I just commercialized them.”
In 1971 he set up his own company, Atari, and designed and built a single tennis video game “Pong” (1973). As his computer could be linked to a TV screen, Pong became a bestseller and the video game explosion had started. At Atari he introduced unconventional work traditions like casual Fridays, jeans, T-shirts and beach sandals instead of a suit and tie.
Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976, but stayed on as a consultant. When he left Atari two years later, it was already on a downhill run as Warner was slow to accommodate the new spreadsheet VisiCalc on Atari machines. Atari was sold by Warner in 1984 and ultimately the rights to Atari‘s name and products were sold to Hasbro, a toy manufacturer.
Bushnell spent most of the eighties and nineties in a 15-year legal tussle with investment house Merrill Lynch after getting into financial difficulties, and he has lost virtually all his possessions. A settlement was reached in 1999. Since then, Bushnell has been working on a few new ideas in the computer video games industry.

Row 2

John Warnock, Adobe, Inc.


John E. Warnock, who was born in 1941, holds a Ph.D. in electrical enigineering from the University of Utah. He has worked for Computer Sciences and IBM, after which he joined Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Together with his colleague Chuck Geschke, as they got frustrated when realizing that their inventions and work in the lab were useless to real people, they left Xerox and founded Adobe Systems in 1982. Since then, the two have worked closely together as pioneers in the field of desktop publishing and electronic document technology.
When Adobe brought PostScript to the market, it revolutionized the concept of electronic publishing and took it from a printer’s art into the layman’s hands. Warnock retired from Adobe in 2001.

Ken Thompson, Unix


Kenneth L. Thompson was born in 1943 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Having graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 with B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering, he joined AT&T Bell Laboratories Computing Research department. In 1969 he developed UNIX, a multi-user multitasking operating system for use on minicomputers, that was easily portable across different types of computers. He also wrote the B language, precursor to his colleague Dennis Ritchie’s C language. In 1973 Thompson rewrote UNIX in C and included the concept of pipes. He co-developed several chess-playing machines, of which his “Belle” won the World Computing Chess Championships in 1980. In 1999, Thompson and Ritchie received the National Medal of Technology for their invention of the UNIX operating system and the C programming language. Thompson retired from Bell Labs in 2000.

Al Shugart, Seagate Technologies


Al Shugart was born in Los Angeles, California, USA in 1930. After graduating with a B.Sc. degree in engineering and physics from the University of Redlands, he joined IBM as a field engineer (although other companies would use the term “programmer” or “technician”, IBM called all its staff “engineer”), where he was involved in the development of the first rigid disc drive, IBM’s 305 RAMAC (Random Access memory), the first commercial disk drive with moving read/write heads. In 1969 he left IBM and joined Memorex to become responsible for product development. In 1973 he founded Shugart Associates, a floppy-disk drive manufacturing company. When he was ousted one year later he spent the next five years outside IT, working as a commercial fisherman after having bought a salmon-fishing boat.
In 1979, Shugart co-founded Shugart Technology, to become the first manufacturer of small hard drives for the PCs then coming onto the market. In 1985 the name of the company was changed to Seagate Technology, Inc. Today, Shugart is president and CEO of the largest disk-drive company in the world.

Rand + Robyn Miller, “Myst”


Brothers Rand Miller, born in 1962, and Robyn Miller, born in 1969, formed the company Cyan Inc. in 1987. This company created the first entertainment game for children on the new medium CD-ROM (Compact Disc – Read Only Memory), called The Manhole. The software for the games was written by older brother Rand, while the art work was done by Robyn. In 1993 they released their smash hit Myst, again on CD-ROM. Myst was the first ever game for adults and in a short time reached hit status through mainly word of mouth. This event catapulted the PC into a totally new realm: the world of gaming. Myst is more than a game, because there is ultimately the story that must be deciphered, while few if any clues are given. Myst was followed by Riven and together they are by far the best-selling computer games in history. Robyn Miller left Cyan in 1998.

Nicolas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab


Nicholas Negroponte (spelled without the “h” on the stamp), who was born in 1966, is a visionary, futurist and Internet guru. He graduated from MIT, where he specialized in the field of computer-aided design. In 1985 he founded the MIT Media Laboratory, a think-tank which does research in information technology like digital TV, electronic publishing, artificial intelligence, and many other fields. It has been the leader in the development of digital video and multimedia. In 1995 Negroponte published his international bestseller Being Digital, in which he discusses the future and how the digital revolution will affect our lives. The Internet plays a major role in that future. Negroponte is a well-known lecturer and he consults internationally to governments and industry.

Row 3

Bill Gates, Microsoft, Inc.


Bill Gates is probably the only IT personality who is known by the man in the street.
William Henry Gates
III was born in 1955 in Seattle, Washington, USA. He wrote his first computer program at the age of 13 and although obviously talented in maths and logic, he dropped out of Harvard University junior year. When Gates was shown an Altair 8800 micro computer from MITS (Micro Instrumentation Telemetry System) by his friend Paul Allen in 1974, they realized that the computer lacked software. They offered MITS to write a version of BASIC for the Altair. In 1975 they founded Micro-soft (the hyphen was dropped later). Initially the company struggled but in 1980 IBM asked Gates to write a new operating system for their soon to be launched IBM PC. Until then IBM saw itself as a computer hardware company making little money out of software, but they would regret this decision forever. Gates bought an operation system called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) for $50,000, renamed it MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM, and the rest is history. In 1986 he became a billionaire at age 31 when Microsoft became a public company and in 1987 Gates introduced the Windows operating system. By introducing applications like Word, Excel and later the browser Internet Explorer, Gates pursued his vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home” (using Microsoft software of course). Its Windows 95 version sold more than 7 million copies in the first six weeks after its release.
Bill Gates is still chairman of Microsoft. A true visionary.

Arthur C. Clarke, Orbiting Communications Satellite


Arthur Charles Clarke is a science fiction writer, born in 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, UK. After serving as a radar instructor in World War II, he studied physics and mathematics at King’s College, London.
In 1945 Clarke wrote an article proposing the idea of a satellite that would orbit the earth in 24 hours, so staying above the same spot on the earth’s surface. This has become the basis of present-day satellite communications technology. Clarke has always been a futurologist, exploring the near and distant future and championing technological progress.
He published his first book in 1951, Prelude to Space, but his best-known work is 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) which became a very successful film. A number of sequels were written: 2010: Space Odyssey II (1982), 2062: Odyssey III (1988) and 3001: the Final Odyssey (1997).
He has lived in Sri Lanka since the 1950’s. In 1998 Clarke was knighted and became Sir Arthur.

Marshall Mcluhan, “The medium is the message”


Herbert Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian writer born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1911. He studied English literature at the universities of Manitoba and Cambridge and has been teaching at several universities in Canada and the United States. His views and theories on the effect of communication have been controversial and unconventional. He claimed that the electronic media itself - especially television - have a far greater impact on society than the information and ideas they disseminate. He has written several books on this subject, including Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects (1967). McLuhan died in 1980. 

Thomas Watson, Jr., IBM


Thomas Watson Jr. was born in Dayton, Ohio, USA in 1914.
IBM started its life in 1911 as the Computing Tabulating Recording Company (founded by Hermann Hollerith, the inventor of the first counting machine using punched cards). When in 1924 the company absorbed the International Business Machines Corporation, the name of the newly formed company was changed to IBM. Watson’s father joined the company that same year and began to build it into an industrial giant. The company, which manufactured time clocks, typewriters and tabulating machines, entered the computer field in 1951. Watson Jr. was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he initially rebelled against this. During World War II he had joined the Air Force, but after the war he joined IBM in 1946 as vice-president and became its president in 1952. That same year IBM launched its first computer, the IBM 701. In 1956, Watson became chairman after his father retired. By then, IBM had become the undisputed world leader in computers.
In the early 60s, IBM announced its third generation of computers, the IBM S/360, which was extremely successful and made IBM even more dominant. “Big Blue” had arrived (all its computers had a distinctive blue color).
Watson retired in 1971. In 1979, he was appointed as ambassador to Moscow, a position in which he served for two years. He died in 1993.

Gordon Moore, Intel corporation, “Moore’s Law”


Gordon E. Moore was born in 1929 in San Francisco, California, USA. He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Physics from the California Institute of Technology. In 1986 he founded, together with Bob Noyce, a new company in Silicon Valley, Intel, which manufactured microprocessors and integrated circuits. Intel developed the first microprocessor, the 4004. It had a size of 0.42 cm x 0.32 cm and contained 2300 transistors. Its processing power was equivalent to the power of the first electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Number Indicator and Calculator), which was built in 1946 with 18,000 vacuum tubes and had the size of a small office.
Moore is well-known for his “Moore’s Law”, a statement published in 1965 in Electronics magazine, which states that computer power (the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip) doubles each year to 18 months and he predicted that that trend would continue for 10 years. In 1995, he updated his prediction to once every two years. In the eighties and nineties his Law has proven to be remarkably accurate and it has continued to describe the growth in the PC industry.
Moore retired as chairman from Intel in 1989 and was named chairman-emeritus in 1997. He still goes to work at Intel.

Row 4

James Gosling, Java


James Gosling, who was born in 1955, received a B.Sc. Comp. Science from the University of Calgary, Canada in 1977. While working at Sun in the early 90s, a group of employees was formed, called “The Green Project”, to come up with solutions for connecting various electronic household appliances together. Gosling created a language, initially called Oak, which was more portable than C++. As the Internet evolved, the focus of the project team changed to allow programs in the new language to run on multiple platforms. In 1995 the language was renamed Java. It is a platform-independent language that facilitates the distribution of both data and application programs (called applets) over the Internet. This “write once, run everywhere” capability has given it widespread appeal amongst software developers.
Gosling has built several compilers, a multiprocessor version of UNIX, a few editors, one of which is a WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”) text editor. His current position is vice-president of Sun Microsystems.

Sabeer Bathia + Jack Smith, Hotmail.com


Sabeer Bathia was born in 1969 in Bangalore, India. Being an extremely bright learner, he won a full scholarship in 1988 from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. After graduating he started as a hardware engineer where he met a colleague, Jack Smith, (1969- ).
In 1995, Bathia and Smith decided to start their own company called JavaSoft (a name Sun would later use for its Java division), with the purpose of creating easy to publish and use personal databases for the Web. Then they came up with the idea of adding e-mail to JavaSoft, in other words access to e-mail from any computer anywhere in the world. Bathia saw its potential and coined its name “hotmail”, it even included the letters “html” which is the programming language to author Web pages. Hotmail.com was launched in July 1996. One year later it was used by nearly 10 million users. Its success in that same year caused Microsoft to make an offer of $160 million for it, and today hotmail.com is a Microsoft product offering. Both Bathia and Smith still work at Microsoft’s Hotmail division.

Esther Dyson, “Release 2.0”


Born in 1952 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, Esther Dyson is the only female in this illustrious group. Although regarded as one of the most influential voices in technology, she’s not a technical engineer or software developer. After graduating from Harvard in 1972 with a B.A. degree in economics, she started her career at Forbes as a fact-checker. In 1977 she left journalism and became a market securities analyst specializing in electronics and technology. In 1980 she founded EDventure Holdings and started to publish the influential monthly computer-industry newsletter Release 1.0. In the late 80s, Dyson became increasingly involved in public discussions about the future of the Internet. In 1997, she wrote Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, in which she describes in plain English the impact the Internet has on individuals’ lives.

Jerry Yang / David Filo, Yahoo!


Jerry Yang was born in 1968 in Taiwan as Yang Chih-Yuan. He adopted the name Jerry after moving to America. When he did his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford University, he met fellow student David Filo, who was born in 1966, studying for the same degree. Together the two students started surfing the net and created an organized directory to assist their Stanford friends in locating cool Web sites. They named the site Yahoo! and as it became more popular, they founded their own company with the same name in 1995. Yahoo! has been a phenomenal success as it brings order to millions of web sites. Yahoo!’s search engine is used daily by millions of Internet users looking for information on the Web. Today the two friends still work at the company they founded.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com


Jeffrey P. Bezos was born in 1964 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude with a Computer Science degree in 1986. He initially worked in the banking industry, but when he saw the Web grow in the early nineties, he made a list of 20 products he thought would do well on the Web. He settled on books because that market did not have a dominant player. In 1994 he resigned, rented a house in Seattle and set up Amazon.com, the world largest bookstore, in his garage. By 1996 the site attracted more than 2,000 visitors. Sales grew to $147 million in 1997. Amazon.com showed that e-commerce could be successful. Bezos made electronic shopping not only possible, but also interesting. He added book reviews, bestseller lists and other interesting features to his site. In December 1999, Time magazine named him ‘Person of the Year’ and called him the “king of cybercommerce”.

Row 5

Bob Kahn, TCP-IP


Robert Kahn, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, is a graduate from Princeton. After receiving his Ph.D. he joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor. In 1966 he joined BBN (Bolt Beranek & Newman in Cambridge) as a researcher where he was responsible for overall system design and solving network capability problems (BBN also introduced the @-symbol as separator in e-mail addresses in 1971). Kahn defined open architecture networking and wrote BBN’s proposal for ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, which was built in 1969. In order to get different data transition protocols to work together, Kahn invented TCP, which later became TCP/IP. TCP/IP stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol and is a set of international standards enabling different computers and networks on the Internet to communicate with each other.

Jaron Lanier, “Virtual Reality”


Jaron Lanier, who was born in a remote part of New Mexico in 1960, is a computer scientist, artist, musician and author. He tried to combine his love for music with his interest in science and research in computer graphics. He joined Atari where he created sound and music for their video games. When Scientific America featured him in 1984 in a cover story on software, he was asked his company affiliation, he had none (by that time he worked as an independent contractor) so he quickly invented one, VPL, standing for Virtual Programming Language. When Lanier found that conventional screens could not display the visualizations he wanted, he built a small head-mounted display (called it EyePhones) and combined this with a wired glove (called DataGlove). This was later extended to Datasuits to enable more complete sensual immersion into “virtual reality”, a term he invented in order to market his products.

Andy Grove, Intel Corporation


Andrew S. Grove was born in Budapest (as Andras Grof), Hungary in 1936. After the Soviets invaded Hungary, he decided to leave and move to America, where he changed his name to Andrew S. Grove. After obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, Grove joined Fairchild Semiconductor where he worked on semiconductor devices and technology.
In 1968 he left Fairchild together with Gordon Moore (see 3:5) and Bob Noyce (the group was called “the Fairchildren”) to found Intel (from integrated electronics). Initially they focused on semiconductors that could replace the magnetic core memory then used in computers. In 1971 Intel developed the first microprocessor, the 4004. This was followed by the 8-bit 8080 processor in 1974. When IBM chose the 8088 chip for its new personal computers in 1980, Intel’s future was secured. Intel continued to develop new chips with greater speed and processing power. They introduced the 80286 in 1982, the 80386 in 1985, the 486 chip in 1989 and the Pentium chip in 1993. Each has become the industry standard. In 1997 Intel introduced the Pentium II, a microprocessor containing 7.5 million transistors. In 1998 Grove resigned from Intel as CEO, but remained Chairman of the board.

Jim Clark, Silicon Graphics, Inc.

                 Netscape Communications Corporation


James Clark, who was born in Plainsville, Texas in 1944, dropped out of high school at age 16 to join the Navy where he completed his high school education. After studying physics at the University of New Orleans he received a Ph.D. from the University of Utah. After graduation he tried teaching as well as consulting and became an associate professor at Stanford University. There he developed the Geometry Engine Chip for use in three-dimensional computer graphics. He left Stanford and founded Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI). By 1986, SGI had revolutionized the design process for everything from airplanes and bridges to special effects in films, like Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993). In 1994 he felt stifled at SGI and left the company. Together with Marc Andreesen, he founded Netscape, to commercialize the Web. Andreesen had developed a web browser, called ‘Mosaic’, which had an enormous impact and popularity. Clark served as Chairman of Netscape Communications till 1999 when it was purchased by AOL. By then Clark had already started a new company, Healtheon, to create a virtual healthcare network using the Internet to link all participants in the healthcare industry. Healtheon merged with WebMD in 1999. By now Clark had successfully guided three companies from inception to going public with more than $1 billion in market capitalization in less than two decades.
His most recent venture is myCFO, an online financial service for high-net-worth customers, and Shutterfly.com, an online digital photo printing service. He also develops sophisticated navigation systems for his high-tech sailboat. He is a true Silicon Valley legend.

Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet



Robert M. Metcalfe was born in 1946 in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering, he went to Harvard to complete his Ph.D. In 1973 he joined Xerox Palo Alto Research Center where he invented Ethernet which allowed computers to send packets of information to each other resulting in the local area network (LAN) where data and resources could be shared. Through LANs, individual PCs now had access to the Internet. Today it is used to connect more than 100 million users to the Internet.
In 1979, Metcalfe left Xerox and founded 3Com, a company that sells commercial versions of Ethernet and other networking products. Metcalfe retired from 3Com in 1990. In 1992 he joined InfoWorld as CEO and weekly columnist. In 1998, Internet Week named him “Geek of the Week”.
Metcalfe still writes his weekly column which is read by millions of IT professionals. He lives with his family on a conservation farm in Maine.


“We were called computer nerds. Anyone who spends his life on a computer is pretty unusual.”    (Bill Gates)

Some may be geeks, some may be gurus; but all of them are legends.

            © Wobbe Vegter, 2001

Published in:

The South African Philatelist, December 2001, Vol. 77:6
ThemNews, December 2001, Vol.2, no.5
Philamath, January 2002, Vol.XXIII, no.3   
Topical Time, March-April 2002, Vol.53, no.2

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