The people who make it happen (part three)

Your new-look Engineering & Technology first went to press a year ago and, to celebrate the anniversary, the editors here publish a list of who we believe to be 25 of the most influential figures in the world of engineering and technology today. Continued - part three.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Inventor of the World Wide Web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, didn't patent the key technology, and has since been a staunch defender of the open standards that ensure this most important of communications mechanisms is not Balkanised by commercial interests.

For his trouble, he has been showered with personal and professional recognition, awards and honorary degrees, including being named one of Time magazine's 100 most important people of the 20th Century alongside Einstein, Fleming and the Wright brothers.

Perhaps it was in his genes. His parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial computer, and he spent his childhood building pretend computers out of cardboard boxes. When he got to Queen's College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1976, he built his first real computer, using TTL gates, an early Motorola microprocessor and an old television.

After graduation Berners-Lee began working in IT and communications jobs, first at Plessey Telecommunications, developing distributed transaction systems, message relays, and barcode technology, and later at DG Nash, where he wrote typesetting software and a multitasking operating system.

During a consultancy at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, in 1980, Berners-Lee wrote a program called Enquire (named after a Victorian encyclopaedia called 'Enquire Within Upon Everything'), which linked fragments of information together.

Berners-Lee returned to CERN in 1984 as a fellow, working on distributed real-time systems for scientific data acquisition and system control. In 1989 he decided he wanted a better way to share knowledge with colleagues within CERN and beyond. Reviving ideas from his Enquire program and drawing on the existing concepts of hypertext, he proposed a global hypertext system, to be known as the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee wrote the first Web server, and the first client software, which was a combined hypertext browser and editor. The server program was released within CERN in December 1990 and offered to the outside world in summer 1991, launching the public Web.

Berners-Lee spent the next few years refining the underlying mechanisms of the Web, such as HTTP and HTML, with feedback from users. In 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to coordinate global Web development.

He now has senior academic appointments at MIT and the University of Southampton, and is co-director of the Web Science Research Initiative, an effort to create a scientific discipline to understand the Web and ensure its social benefit.

Berners-Lee has been widely recognised for the impact of his work and the importance of his decision to make the World Wide Web freely available to all.

His website lists awards and honours going back to 1995, when the significance of the Web began to be widely recognised. They include at least nine honorary degrees; many Fellowships (including of the IET); prizes honouring Babbage, Columbus, Kilby, Lovelace, Maxwell, and Mountbatten; as well as an OBE, knighthood and the Order of Merit from HM the Queen.

In 1995, Eric Schmidt, then chief technical officer of Sun Microsystems and now CEO of Google, told the New York Times: "If this were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize. What he's done is that significant."

Andrew Viterbi

The man behind wireless communication

If you've used a 3G phone, digital TV or Wi-Fi connection recently, then you've got Professor Viterbi to thank for the signal getting through.

Viterbi invented the eponymous signal-processing algorithm in 1967 as a way to correct errors in noisy digital communication links. Error-correction circuits give designers the leeway to transmit signals at lower power than uncorrected signals, making battery-powered, high-bandwidth mobile communications more practical.

The Viterbi algorithm has since been applied to second and third-generation (3G) mobile networks, dial-up modems, satellite and deep-space communications, and the WiFi standard. It is also used to extract hidden meaning from data being processed by speech recognition, computational linguistics, and bio-informatics systems.

As if creating the theoretical underpinnings of modern wireless communications wasn't enough, Viterbi has also directly shaped the industry. In 1985, he co-founded Qualcomm, which developed key technologies used in the 3G WCDMA standard. The company now licences these technologies to the rest of the mobile industry.

Viterbi also created his own venture capital fund, Viterbi Group, to advise and invest in start-up companies, mainly in wireless communications and network infrastructure.

Having become wealthy from his inventions, Viterbi paid back the University of Southern California, where he was granted his PhD in 1962, by giving its engineering school $52 million. It is now named after him.

Viterbi is a Fellow of the IEEE, and was inducted as a member of the US National Academy of Engineering in 1978 and of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1996. In 2007 he was awarded America's National Medal of Science for developing the Viterbi algorithm, and for his contributions to CDMA technology.

Richard Stallman

Software developer and software freedom activist

As an industry influencer, Stallman both promulgates and provokes acute reactions. To some he is a tireless crusader against the clutches of vendor-led computing, the 'Father of Free Software, the 'high-priest of hi-tech'; to others Richard Stallman is a stubborn, obsessive, unrealistic iconoclast who leverages his public notoriety as a software activist to draw attention to his politicised hobby horses.

Best known for his GNU operating system project, the Stallman-founded Free Software Foundation gave succour to Linus Torvalds' early work, so can take some credit for turning the 'open source' Linux operating system into a market force; Stallman, however, eschews the term 'open source', preferring 'free software'.

Stallman's stance on the inter-relationships between proprietary software and national interests broadens the debate around technological choices beyond purely technological issues. As a lobbyist on the world stage, Stallman trumpets the positive contribution that free software could make toward the economies of developing nations.

In Venezuela, Stallman has promoted the adoption of free software in state oil company PDVSA, municipal government, and the nation's military. In August 2006 at meetings with the government of the Indian State of Kerala, he reportedly persuaded officials to discard proprietary software at state schools, resulting in the decision to migrate computers in 12,500 high schools from Microsoft Windows to a free-software operating system.

His work has been acknowledged with a string of honorary doctorates and professorships. Notoriously averse to manifestations of high-tech (he refuses to own a mobile phone), Stallman rubbished the voguey concept of cloud computing in a September 2008 interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper, describing it as stupid, and "a marketing hype campaign" - although it remains to be seen if his views will affect cloud computing adoption trends.

Stallman is no armchair activist. As biographer Thomas Bradley reports, he has participated in protests against software patents and digital rights management (DRM).

Gordon Conway

Delivering technology solutions to feed the hungry

Sir Gordon Conway is probably best known for his ground-breaking book 'The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century', in which he proposes the application of technology as the key to resolving global food security. An ideas man who has devoted his career to solving the problems of hungry and excluded people, Conway was voted in 2005 by readers of Prospect magazine as one of the top 100 global 'public intellectuals'.

Conway started off as an agricultural ecologist with an academic career spanning three continents. By the 1980s he was ensconced in Imperial College as the Professor of Environmental Technology. He went on to direct the sustainable agriculture programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London before becoming Representative of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi from 1988 to 1992. He was vice chancellor of the University of Sussex and chair of the Institute for Development Studies. In 2005 he became chief scientific adviser to DFID - a division of the UK government that manages Britain's aid to poor countries and works to get rid of extreme poverty.

Conway is optimistic that there is a technological solution to the world's most pressing social issues: "It is now time to change the approach and to get a greater number of research technologies into use by making them available to millions of farmers." But this is only half of the problem. Conway accepts that while it may be possible to put the technology in the hands of the hungry, getting them to adopt it may be a different matter. Conway is currently president of the Royal Geographical Society.

Nick Winser

Great responsibility with power

Nick Winser joined the board of National Grid in April 2003 as group director responsible for UK and US transmission operations, having previously held the role of chief operating officer of US transmission.

He entered the power industry back in 1983 with the Central Electricity Generation Board, where he held a variety of technical engineering roles before moving to PowerGen eight years later and national Grid in 1993.

Winser combines the logic and numeracy of an engineer with a shrewd strategic mind. He operates in the front line, dealing with UK Government and regulators, in forecasting UK total energy demand and security of supply.

Winser has seen plenty of changes throughout his 25 years in the industry, but is clear that one thing remains constant. "The political, legal and commercial backdrops have changed, but the engineering continues to shine through," he says. "The challenge of keeping the lights on and building infrastructure to do so has many of the same engineering challenges that we had back then. It is about the second-by-second control of the system frequencies, it's about building bigger projects for connecting up low-carbon sources of generation. These challenges are similar to past demands such as when we had the dash for gas with a lot of new gas-fired power stations being built."

One unique challenge that Winser faced was the Y2K project, where he was tasked with ensuring that there was no interruption to supply caused by the Millennium Bug. "I spent the clock change rollover in the viewing gallery at our control centre watching nothing happen while everyone else was out having a good time."

Winser believes that his background as an electrical engineer has provided him with an ideal platform to be successful at board level. "At the heart of engineering there is a very logical thought process," he explains. "I have spent five years on the board at National Grid and have had to get pretty good at looking at things such as corporate finance, and I often think that the skills that a career in engineering has given me have equipped me for this."

There are plenty of challenges ahead. "This is the most exciting time of my career," he adds. "I know people tend to say this, but it is true, this is an astonishing time. When you look at the two principal challenges ahead of us, they are moving to a low-carbon economy and securing our gas supply.

"We need to connect all the new sources of the low-carbon generation; massive wind power, a new nuclear programme, connecting up carbon capture and storage and potentially an interconnected Europe.

"I also get the fun of dealing with another huge change which is on the gas side where the UK moves from being pretty much self sufficient in gas as a nation in 2003, but where by 2016 we will be importing 80 per cent of our gas. So how to connect up all those new sources of gas from Norway, from mainland Europe and from new LNG terminals, one of which we are building ourselves. Those two challenges are just magnificent in an engineering sense."

Continued - part four

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