Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), an Italian painter, sculptor and inventor
It would be impossible to start this list without referring to Leonardo da Vinci. A universal genius par excellence, Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian artist, architect, anatomist and engineer. He first came to prominence through his paintings, and his best-known works – the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper – are world-famous symbols of the Renaissance.
The illegitimate son of a notary and a local peasant woman, Leonardo was raised by his father who in 1470 apprenticed him to Verrocchio’s studio. There he learnt about drawing, painting, mathematics, perspective, sculpture and architecture. This exceptionally wide range of training enabled him to cross a large number of disciplines and come up with the most innovative of inventions.
By observing the flight of birds as well as water and hydraulic systems, he designed war equipment and flying machines that were incredibly ahead of his time. He is credited with the original ideas of the airplane, helicopter, parachute, submarine and machine gun. He also wrote and drew thousands of pages about the human body, muscles, tendons, the skeleton and organs. It is hardly surprising that he is considered to be the father of science, engineering and medicine.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), an American politician, writer, philosopher and printer
Benjamin Franklin is one of the most popular figures in American history. A dedicated humanist, he created a printing works and spent his free time building up his knowledge in a broad range of areas. He firmly believed that education and culture should be accessible to all and created literary societies and debating clubs such as the Junto, as well as the first lending library.
A pre-eminent diplomat, Benjamin Franklin negotiated the repeal of the Stamp Act – a taxation law imposed by Great Britain on its colonies. And in the American War of Independence he obtained the support of France, first covertly and then in the form of troops. At the end of the war he participated in drafting the declaration of independence, of which he was a signatory, making him one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America.
In addition to his political prowess, Benjamin Franklin was passionate about science and particularly electricity. He left an important legacy in the research of electrical phenomena and he is the one who came up with the principle of conservation of electricity. One of his most famous experiments involved flying a kite in the middle of a thunder storm, which proved that lightning is an electrical discharge and led to his invention of the lightning rod.
James Watt (1736-1819), a Scottish mathematician and engineer
From an early age James Watt was passionate about mechanics. He made important improvements to the design of the Newcomen steam engine that played a key role in the industrial and transportation revolutions that took place in the nineteenth century.
As a boy, James Watt liked to spend time in the workshop set up by his grandfather for repairing boats and nautical instruments. In 1757 he became the mathematical instrument maker for the University of Glasgow and it was around this time that the University’s physics department asked him to repair its working model of a Newcomen atmospheric engine. Watt noted that the engine was extremely inefficient due to heat loss and began to work on correcting this defect and making other improvements to it.
In 1769, Watt obtained a patent for his steam engine but due to financial constraints he was only able to actually build it seven years later. After further improvements made between 1781 and 1788, the Watt steam engine was then ready to be put to a range of industrial uses. Watt also invented a document copier and a room-heating system using steam coils.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a Serbian-American inventor and engineer
Now considered as one of the most extraordinary inventors of all time, Nikola Tesla’s genius was long overlooked. This Serbian-American inventor, engineer and physician is best known for his contribution to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system.
He was one of the greatest engineers in the history of technology, filing some 300 patents covering a total of 125 inventions (including many that were wrongly attributed to Thomas Edison), in a wide range of fields including electricity, electromagnetism and mechanics. His most famous inventions are the radio, the carbon button lamp, the electronic microscope, the radar and the X-ray.
A dedicated humanist, Nikola Tesla’s overriding objective was for his inventions to help humanity rather than bring him financial gain. For example, in the aim of supplying free electricity accessible to everyone, in 1889 he built a high-voltage tower designed to transmit wireless power but the project was eventually abandoned due to a lack of funding. He was a non-conformist compared with the industrialists of his time in that he was not in it for the money and it was only a lot later that his inventions became widely known.
Alan Turing (1912-1954), the inventor of the computer age
One of the greatest figures of the 20th century, Alain Turing is the father of the modern computer. A British mathematical genius, pioneer of computer science and a visionary in artificial intelligence, his work helped crack the encrypted codes sent by the Nazis through the infamous “Enigma” machines during the Second World War.
Despite having a reputation for being messy and inattentive at school, Turing’s genius showed through at the age of 16 when he gave one of the clearest-ever explanations of Einstein’s theory of relativity. His entry into the world-renowned King’s College, Cambridge, and his PhD from Princeton firmly set the course for his research work. In 1936, Turing published a landmark paper in which he answered one of the most burning logics questions of the time by proving that some mathematical decision problems are undecidable. He devised the theoretical existence of a “universal machine” which is capable of performing all forms of calculation. Known as the “Turing Machine”, this is now considered as the precursor of the modern computer.
Alan Turing also excelled in his work with the British intelligence services during the Second World War. By breaking the Enigma code, he gave the Allies a decisive advantage that, according to several historians, shortened the conflict by two years. Despite this heroic role, Turin was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 and committed suicide two years later.
Katherine Johnson (1918- ), an African-American physicist, mathematician and space engineer
Racial inequality and sexist clichés were the norm in 1960s America. At a time when segregation laws still applied, forcing black Americans to use different bathrooms, eat in different restaurants and study in different schools to white people, the American government called on dozens of African-American women to carry out mathematical calculations in its bid to get ahead of the Russians in the Space Race.
Katherine Johnson was one of this team of black women who were known as the “Colored Computers” and worked in a segregated calculation unit in the NASA building in Virginia. A mathematical genius, Johnson is one of the rare few to have mastered analytical geometry and little by little she took her place in this ultra-masculine world. She performed the calculations (trajectories, launch windows etc.) for the first US space flight – Alan Shepard’s suborbital launch in 1959 – and subsequently for John Glenn’s orbital flight in 1962. In 1970, she calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 13 moon mission and her corrections for the return trajectory saved the astronauts’ lives when the mission was aborted.
After staying in the shadows for many years, in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award.
Steve Wozniak (1950- ), an American computer scientist and co-founder of Apple
An American computer scientist, professor and electronics engineer, Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple alongside Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne. He was one of the pioneers of the micro-computer industry, which brought personal computers into homes and SMEs.
Born in Silicon Valley in 1950, he took an interest in electronics technology from a very young age thanks to the influence of his father who was an electronics engineer. At the age of 13, he won first prize at a science fair for a transistor-based calculator. And then in 1971 he created his first computer with a friend, Bill Fernandez, which went up in smoke when the power supply unit caught fire.
With the launch of Altair in 1975 – the world’s first commercially successful personal computer that was sold in a build-it-yourself kit – Wozniak realised that the micro-computer revolution had well and truly begun. Together with his friend Steve Jobs, who he had met eight years earlier through Bill Fernandez, he decided to go one better than Altair and on 1 April 1976, they created their company, Apple Computer. The visionary talent of Steve Jobs combined with the electronics skills of Steve Wozniak enabled them to make the machines that transformed the micro-computing industry.
After an interlude at university to complete his degree, Wozniak definitively left Apple in 1987, two years after Steve Jobs and 12 years after the company was originally formed. He then went on to found several unsuccessful companies before becoming an adjunct professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Tim Berners-Lee (1955- ), a British computer scientist and the main inventor of the World Wide Web
Without Tim Berners-Lee, the world as we know it today would not exist, because it was this British computer scientist who was the brains behind the World Wide Web. In 1980, when he was an intern at CERN (the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, now called the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) he devised the principle of the hypertext link. His invention allowed a direct connection between a key word embedded in a text and another document containing related information. This enabled intuitive browsing, by association, between different files, which facilitated instant data exchange between scientists across the world.
Returning to CERN nine years later, Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of adapting his system of links to documents contained in different data bases, connected via the new Internet network through domain names. To help read these hypertext documents he created a visual interface that he called the world wide web. And so the Web was born.
Although Berners-Lee’s invention was largely revised (mostly under his supervision in his role as Director of the World Wide Web Consortium), it is still the basis of what we use today. Berners-Lee continues to work on making technical improvements to the Web and ensuring that it stays a homogenous and unitary network. And he is now tackling the design of what many believe to be the next phase of the Internet: the Semantic Web.
All of these great inventors – and the many others who have remained in the shadows – are clear proof that the American author, Napoleon Hill, was right when he said “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve”.