Timeline: Historical Milstones in Computer Science

The world of computer science as we know it has been shaped by the innovations of numerous computer scientists. These contributions over the past century have contributed to the development of popular programming languages, AI, and other computer programming standards. 

While there are more important computer scientists to count, there are a few notable pioneers who have truly helped lay the foundation for the modern technological era.  

This article will cover 15 of the most famous computer scientists and their contributions to the industry. From the creation of the first programming language to the creation of the Internet, these computer scientists have made a big impact in the world of computer science. 

1. Alan Turing (1912-1954)

Alan Turning was born June 23, 1912, in London England. In his adult years, he worked as a mathematician and logician and made several important contributions to the fields of mathematics, computer science, and most notably, artificial intelligence.  

After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 1934, he was elected to a fellowship at King's College where he continued his research of probability theory. During his time at King's College, he completed his seminal paper titled "On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Decision Problem." 

This paper proved to be significant for the newly emerging science of computing. It was eventually recommended by publication by fellow mathematical logician Alonzo Church, who had published a paper with a similar conclusion.  

Following the success of this publication, Turing moved to Princeton to begin his studies toward a Ph. D. in mathematical logic under Church's tutelage. He achieved his Ph. D. in 1938.  

During this time, Turing made one of his biggest contributions to computer science, the Turing machine. The Turing machine is an abstract computing machine that encapsulates the fundamental logical principles of a digital computer. 

The Church-Turing thesis used in Turning machine logic claimed that everything computable by humans could also be computed using the universal Turning machine. This proved to be an important theory as it marked out the limits of human computation.  

After a stint working as a code breaker during World War 1, Turing was recruited by the National Physical Laboratory in London to work on creating an electronic computer. 

He crafted a design for the Automatic Computer Engine (ACE) as the first complete version of an electronic stored-program digital computer. His design was not used, however, as his colleagues at NPL found the engineering too complex to complete, so a smaller version was built.  

One of Turing's most notable achievements was advancements in AI. Turing is known as the founding father of artificial intelligence. He suggested early theories about the human brain being comparable to a digital computing machine that is trained to organize and comprehend information. Using this understanding of the human brain, he proposed the Turing test, which was used as a criterion for whether an AI model is thinking or not.  

In 2022, with the rise of ChatGPT, new conversations about Turing's theory were ignited, pondering the likelihood that the AI model met the components of the Turing test. 

In his final years, Turing found himself elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in March 1951. Things were however going to change for him shortly after, as he was convicted of "gross indecency" in March 1952.  

He was found dead in 1954, apparently poisoned by cyanide. The official cause of death was ruled a suicide though many suspect foul play. 

The mistreatment of Turing during his final days had become a major talking point by the early 21st century. In 2009, the British Prime Minister publicly apologized for the way the government treated Turing, with the Queen granting him an official pardon four years later.

Alan Turing with his Turing machine 

2. Grace Hopper (1906 - 1992)

Grace Hopper was a pioneer of computer science as well as a naval officer. She is best known for her contributions to computer programming and software development. 

Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper graduated from Vassar College with degrees in physics and mathematics. After completing her master's degree at Yale, she began teaching at Vassar while working on her doctorate.  

With her doctorate complete in 1934, Hopper took a year-long sabbatical from Vassar to study with the famous mathematician Richard Courant at New York University. 

After Pearl Harbor, Hopper decided to join the war effort by enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Although initially rejected, she completed 60 days of intense training to receive her commission of lieutenant junior grade. 

She was then assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard. During her time enlisted, she worked with a team to create the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, also known as the MARK 1.  

This was the first electromechanical computer in the US, which was used to compute rocket trajectories and create range tables for anti-aircraft guns.  

After the war, Hopper left her position at Vassar to continue working with computers. She completed work on the Mark 2 and Mark 3 from 1946 to 1949 before joining the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia.  

During this time, Hopper pioneered the theory of automatic programming and used it to explore new ways to use computers for coding.  

In 1952, Hopper successfully developed the first compiler called A-0. This compiler translated mathematical codes into formats readable by machines. This development proved to be one of the most important in the history of computer science as it paved the way for creating modern programming languages.  

The next year, Hopper proposed a controversial idea of using words instead of symbols when writing programs. She was told this would never work but continued her research on the subject intensely.  

Only a few years later in 1956, her idea was realized and the first programming language to use word commands was created. FLOW-MATIC uses regular English words to process data as opposed to the typical mathematical symbols used at the time.  

The creation of word-based languages opened the doors for more people to start working in the computer science industry. Hopper believed that using words over symbols would make people feel more comfortable using computers for programming purposes.  

Hopper spent her later years as an in-demand speaker at computer-related events. She died in 1992 of natural causes at her home in Virginia.  

3. John von Neumann (1903-1957)

John von Neumann was a mathematician born in Budapest, Hungary on December 28th, 1903. Neumann was extremely gifted from an early age and was thought to be a child prodigy.  

In his adult life, he was influential in the field of quantum theory and even helped invent the concept of stored-program digital computers.  

Neumann showed early signs of genius during his early childhood and eventually began attending one of Budapest's most prestigious secondary schools, the Lutheran Gymnasium. 

After his family fled the communist regime in 1919, Neumann completed his secondary schooling and began his studies in chemistry and mathematics. He earned his degree in chemical engineering in 1925 from the Swiss Federal Institute as well as a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Budapest in 1926.  

After a period as a private lecturer in Europe and an infamous stint as a teacher at Princeton, Neumann began his work on the Manhattan Project at the invitation of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  

His expertise in the nonlinear physics of hydrodynamics proved very useful for the project and helped with the implosion design for the first atomic bomb.  

Postwar, Neumann spent more time as a government and industry consultant, contributing to the U.S. Army's ENIAC computer. His modifications to the ENIAC were significant, as he made suggestions that helped implement a stored-program machine.  

This development encouraged Neumann to lobby for an improved computer at the Institute for Advanced Study. The IAS machine was operated in 1952 and used binary arithmetic, replacing the typical decimal numbers used by the ENIAC.  

This led to the facilitation of conditional loops that have become the heart of all coding to come. Neumann's publications on computer design created friction among his colleagues, who all wished to patent their contributions.  

This led to the construction of several similar machines around the world, driving the computer science industry further than ever before. Neumann died of bone cancer in 1957. However, he continued to work in the realm of computer science as his health deteriorated.  

4. Sir Tim Berners-Lee (1955 - Present)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the man credited for inventing the World Wide Web during his time at CERN. In 1990, he wrote the first web client-server and refined the specifications for URLs, HTTP, and HTML as the technology became more widespread. 

Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee was naturally gifted at computing. Both of his parents worked on the first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1. After graduating from the University of Oxford in 1976, he began designing computer software for Plessey Telecommunications.  

He began a stint at CERN in 1980 as a software engineering consultant. During this time, he began his work on Enquire, a program that could store data in files containing connections within and among separate files. 

This technique later became known as hypertext. During a second stint at CERN in 1989, Berners-Lee drew up proposals for designing a global hypertext document system that used the Internet.  

This would eventually lead him to create the software for the first web server and subsequent web browser. This would lead to the World Wide Web as we know it today, making Berners-Lee one of the most important computer scientists to have ever lived.  

5. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Ada Lovelace was born in London on December 10th, 1815. She was an English Mathematician who created one of the first programs for a digital computer. She has become known as the first computer programmer.  

After becoming interested in machines and prototypes designed by Charles Babbage, they were finally introduced in 1843 when she came to translate an article written by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian mathematician.  

This article, "Elements of Charles Babbage's Analytical Machine" was expertly detailed and elaborated on by Lovelace. Ada, an early programming language, was named after her and she remains one of the most important computer scientists in history.  

6. Donald Knuth (b. 1938)

Donald Knuth was born in Wisconsin on January 10th, 1938. He is a mathematician and computer scientist famous for his series of books "The Art of Computer Programming", as well as the TeX formatting language.  

After receiving his bachelor's degree in mathematics from the Case Institute of Technology, he received a doctorate in mathematics in 1963 from the California Institute of Technology.  

Knuth became a professor of computer science at Stanford in 1968, after completing a first draft of a general survey of computer programming that would eventually be published into seven volumes.  

During his time at Stanford, he developed TeX, a document preparation system that allowed precise control of special characters and formulas. This soon became the standard for submitting type-set research for publication. 

7. Edsger Dijkstra (1930-2002)

Edsger Dijkstra was a Dutch computer scientist born on August 6th, 2002. He is credited for developing the paradigm of structured programming used when writing computer programs.  

After receiving his doctorate from the University of Amsterdam in 1959, he began teaching at the Technical University of Eindhoven. During this time, he proposed a solution to the graph-theory problem identifying the shortest path between network nodes.  

This algorithm is still used today as the most efficient way to find the fastest way between two points in a network. This has been vital for areas like communication networks and flight planning.  

In 1960, working with another computer scientist named Jaap A. Zonnefeld, he helped develop the first compiler for the ALGOL-60 programming language. He has since been heralded as a leader in program language design and helped standardize the "if-then" design process.

8. Marvin Minsky (1927-2016)

Marvin Minsky was born on August 9th, 1927, in New York. He was an American mathematician and computer scientist famous for his contributions to the realm of artificial intelligence.  

His work in AI would earn him the A.M. Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Minsky enrolled at Harvard in 1946 to study physics, neurophysiology, and psychology.  

After graduating in 1950, he enrolled at Princeton and began work on the first neural network simulator. After moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1957, he worked with colleague John McCarthy to co-found the Artificial Intelligence Project.  

It became one of the most important research centers in AI, and Minsky remained at MIT, furthering his research for the rest of his career. 

9. Linus Torvalds (1969 - Present)

Linus Torvalds was born in Finland in 1969 and is one of the most famous living computer scientists. He is credited for developing the Linux operating system, which is widely used around the world.  

Torvalds began learning computer programming at a young age, using a Commodore VIC-20 owned by his grandfather. After purchasing his first personal computer in 1996, he felt unsatisfied with the operating system.  

He much preferred the UNIX operating system that he had used on a university computer, prompting him to create his own PC version of UNIX. After months of work, the beginning of a new operating system was completed, Linux.  

Shortly after, Torvalds made Linux available to the public and open source, allowing anyone with the computer knowledge required to modify Linux to meet their needs. This approach helped jump-start further development of Linux, with many programmers retooling and refining the software over time.  

Linux currently accounts for most of the active servers used on the Internet and remains open-source and modifiable. 

10. James Gosling (1955 - Present)

James Gosling is another well-known computer scientist of the 21st century. Born in Canada in 1955, he went on to create one of the most popular coding languages of all time, Java. After receiving his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University, he would invent the Java programming language in 1991.  

He created the initial design for the language and its compiler and a virtual machine. Java remains one of the most popular coding languages used all over the world.  

11. Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Steve Jobs likely needs no introduction, as he is arguably the most famous computer scientist of all time. As the co-founder of Apple, he helped revolutionize the entire tech industry using innovations that had never been seen before.  

Born in California in 1955, he began his career in coding as a video game designer at Atari in 1974. After saving enough money to fund a pilgrimage to India, he returned to the US and reconnected with Stephen Wozniak, a friend currently working for Hewlett-Packard.  

After learning that Wozniak was designing his own computer logic board, Jobs suggested going into business together. 

 This became a reality after Hewlett-Packard rejected Wozniak's design in 1976. The Apple 1 logic board was completed in Job's garage using money obtained from the sale of his old Volkswagen and Wozniak's programmable calculator.  

Realizing that personal computers were the future, the two worked together to create the Apple 2 logic board, complete with a keyboard. The rest is history, as Jobs went on to revolutionize the tech industry with innovations like the iPhone, Mac personal computers, and iPads.  

Now Apple has one of the most extensive collections of interconnected software and devices with a strong ecosystem. Steve Jobs died after a battle with cancer in 2011.

Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone in 2007

12. Larry Page and Sergey Brin (1973 - Present)

Larry Page and Sergey Brin are computer scientists famous for co-founding Google. Google was a game changer for the way people access and use information found on the internet. Working together while pursuing their doctorates at Stanford, they began work on the search engine algorithm that became the foundation for Google we know today.  

Their work has led to many of the vital applications people depend on today like Google Maps and Gmail. 

13. Guido van Rossum (1956 - Present)

Guido van Rossum is a Dutch computer scientist who is best known for creating Python, the popular programming language. Python was designed as a simple and versatile programming language and is currently used in web development and AI all over the world. 

Python is open source, leading to a rapid development process that quickly drew in a large community of developers. Python is popular for being one of the most simplistic programming languages to use and is often the language new programmers start with. 

14. Bjarne Stroustrup (1950 - Present)

Bjarne Stroustrup is a Danish computer scientist born in 1950. He is famous for creating C++, one of the most popular coding languages in the world. Using C language as a foundation, Stroustrup developed C++ to be a flexible and powerful language that supported procedural and object-oriented programming. 

 C++ quickly became one of the most popular coding languages for systems and game development. 

15. Bill Gates (1955 - Present)

Of course, no list of famous computer scientists who changed the world would be complete without Bill Gates. There is no question that Bill Gates is one of the most important computer scientists to have ever lived.  

He is the co-founder of Microsoft and truly set the stage for personal computers to become mainstream. Some of his most famous accomplishments include developing the Windows operating system and the Microsoft Office applications like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. 

All of these have become essential tools for people all over the world. Without Bill Gates, the state of computer science would likely not be where it is today. 


There are countless computer scientists that have paved the way for the technology industry we know today. Each of the computer scientists on this list has made a lasting impact on the industry and has likely inspired many after them to continue innovating and taking the world of tech to places never reached before.  

As time goes on, we will likely see more great minds and their contributions to computer science.