Ten Underground Tech Masterminds You Probably Haven't Heard Enough Aboutby@carloocchiena
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Ten Underground Tech Masterminds You Probably Haven't Heard Enough About

by Carlo OcchienaMay 18th, 2020
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Jack Goldman founded Xerox PARC Lab in the late 60's. Norman Abramson pioneered wireless computer communication in Hawaii in 1969. Alan Kotok was one of the pioneers of computer science in a time when working on computers still meant a joint hardware and software skills. Norman Kotok's fame made a substantial leap forward in 1984 after being included in Steven Levy's famous "Hackers of the Computer Revolution" Kotok is the first hacker to be named in the book "Kotok's Heroes"

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The history of technology, intended here in a narrow sense as the history of information technology, rests on the shoulders of a small handful of giants.

Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Tim Berners-Lee ... just to name the first ones that come to my mind.

They are indeed milestones. But history has been written by many more hands. Some have written entire chapters, others just a few paragraphs, others have left marks of erasures, but their signature is still nowhere in the book.

In this article I would therefore like to explore ten characters who, both for their contributions and for their story, and for their relative lack of fame, I consider interesting and worthy of being told.

1) Jack Goldman

1921 - 2011

In the list for: Creating Xerox PARC Lab

If personal computers can be as we know them today, much of the credit is due to the inventors and scientists who worked at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, aka Xerox PARC.

PARC's main achievements include graphical user interfaces, the mouse, the laser printer, the bitmap graphics, the WYSIWYG text editor, object-oriented programming, ethernet, and many other areas of research related to human-machine interfaces.

Xerox as known was not able to capitalize on this arsenal of innovation, but it is no secret that several tech entrepreneurs of the time drew heavily from their creations. One name among many, Steve Jobs.

Not only that, but the PARC model was then taken as an example by several technology companies of the time. It was a futuristic model. Probably without PARC, the history of Silicon Valley would have been very different.

And well, for all this we have to thank essentially Jack Goldman, who saw this as a necessity and founded PARC Lab in the late 60's.

In addition, Goldman contributed to research in many areas, including the first prototype batteries for electric cars.

Rarely mentioned and remembered, the Wikipedia page dedicated to him is only 7 lines of text long.

2) Elizabeth J. Feinler

1931 - living

In the list for: Director of research center that developed ARPANET

One of the great forgotten stories of computer science is the substantial contribution that women have made to its evolution. Among many women ahead of their time, I like to remember Elizabeth Feinler.

Hers is a story of self-determination and courage. While she was studying for a PhD in biochemistry, something definitely not common in the 40s, she decided to stop some time from studying to work and earn a few dollars.

Since her first work experiences, however, she fell more in love with data and information research than biochemistry. She moved to California and started working for the Stanford Research Center.

She contributes in a fundamental way to the drafting of the first documentation regarding the transmission of data over the network. She becomes director of the working group that contributed to the drafting of the first protocols for DNS and domain registry names that will then flow into the ARPANET project, from which the modern Internet was then derived.

3) Norman Abramson

1932 - living

In the list for: Early development of wireless computer communication.

Nowadays, Wi-Fi connection between devices is something you don't even think about, completely taken for granted. Yet if this is possible today, we owe it to Norman Abramson's first experiments at the University of Hawaii in 1969.

His early research concerned radar signal characteristics and sampling theory, as well as frequency modulation and digital communication channels, error correcting codes, pattern recognition and machine learning and computing for seismic analysis. Later he condensed his research to give birth to ALOHA.

ALOHA (Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area) was a pioneering computer networking system. It was initially used only in the Hawaii area but its technology was at the cutting-edge.

In the early 80's this technology was revived for the creation of the first Wi-Fi networks in the USA, using the first 1G networks.

4) Alan Kotok

1941 - 2006

In the list for: Kicking-off the hacker culture

Alan Kotok's fame made a substantial leap forward in 1984 after being included in Steven Levy's famous book "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution".

Kotok was one of the pioneers of computer science, in a time when working on computers still meant combining hardware and software skills in a joint way.

He contributed to the development of numerous projects, including the first PDP-10 models, the ancestor of modern computers, the development of the first videogames, including chess and Spacewar. He contributed to the development of different programming languages and graphics interfaces.

Alan, however, did not stop at the dawn of computer science, but was able to reinvent himself in the various subsequent phases, contributing to the development of the Internet, HTML protocols, the first digital payment tools and security protocols.

But perhaps more than any other he gave birth to the Hacker Culture, intended as the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes.

Let's remember that in its original definition, hacker was not the one who committed illegal acts through the use of computers, nor the one who generically programmed or had a nerd approach.

Hacker was specifically the one who found fun, exciting, challenging software and hardware problems. Someone that knew how to design innovative solutions, never seen before, outside the box. In all this often with a desecrating, amusing, unconventional style.

Kotok was certainly a master and forerunner of this culture, the one who gave birth to a movement that radically changed society in the years to come.

5) Radia Perlman

1951 - living

In the list for: Fundamental contributions to network design

  • (how freaking amazing is that photo of her??)

She's from a Jewish family of tech workers. Her father worked on the development of the first radar technologies and her mother, a mathematician, was a programmer. Radia's destiny seemed already marked from the beginning, probably from her very first name.

She invented the STP (Spanning Tree Protocol) and her contribution in network design has been more than fundamental, so much so that she is often called "the queen of switches" or "the queen of the network".

To her credit she has more than a hundred patents and has worked in major tech companies including Intel and Dell.

She has repeatedly mentioned how during her career being a woman meant being alone, being limited, being part of a minority. Although she herself admits that she got used to it right away, as it was an absolutely "normal" thing in her industry.

6) Carol Shaw

1955 - living

In the list for: Being the first female videogame programmer

Shaw was born in 1955 and was raised in Palo Alto. Her father was a mechanical engineer and worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

From an early age, Carol was more interested in her brother's mechanical games than her dolls, but her true passion for computers manifested itself when she discovered she could play text games.

She was hired at Atari immediately after her university studies, creating memorable games for the time. Her entire career was dedicated to developing video games, first for Atari and then for Activision, although she quit her job in 1990, at the age of 35, essentially thanks to royalties from her River Raid game which sold over 1,000,000 copies.

Among her successes are 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Othello, Video Checkers, Super Breakout, River Raid.

7) Carlo Strozzi

1961 - living

In the list for: Being the creator of the first NoSQL database, as well as the "NoSQL" definition itself.

Today, non-relational data models known as NoSQL DB's are the thing of the day. Yet it was an Italian computer scientist who first coined the term and designed the first NoSQL database, in 1998.

Carlo Strozzi still works in the IT field today, and finding information about him was not easy. However, I was able to contact him by email and he was kind enough to answer me and give me all the necessary information.

He rightly pointed out to me that the current NoSQL has little to do with the true original meaning:

NoSQL has been around since 1998 and it has nothing to do with the newborn NoSQL Movement, which has been receiving much hype lately. While the former is a well-defined software package, is a relational database to all effects and just it intentionally does not use SQL as a query language, the newcomer is mostly a concept (and by no means a novel one either), which departs from the relational model altogether and it should therefore have been called more appropriately "NoREL", or something to that effect, since its not being SQL-based is just an obvious consequence of not being relational, and not the other way around.

Carlo has continued to create and invent various projects, which you can find on his personal website,

8) Aaron Swartz

1986 - 2013

In the list for: Fundamental contribution to Open Source Manifesto

Aaron Swartz's story is pretty sad. The story of a crazy talent unfortunately ended in tragedy.

From a very young age he achieved important results in computer science, winning at the age of 13 an award for the best non-commercial site.

At the age of 14 he started collaborating with network experts becoming co-author of the RSS 1.0 specification. Still very young, he participated in the design of the source code of Creative Commons licenses and their dissemination. Later he attended Stanford University, leaving it after a year to found the software company Infogami, a startup funded by Y Combinator. From here Swartz found himself working on the Reddit website. Once the initial difficulties were overcome, the site took off to millions of users per month.

In 2007 he was one of the creators of Open Library, the Internet Archive digital library project.

He has always fought and advocated for the cause of a free Internet and free dissemination of knowledge.

In 2011 he was accused of hacking a private network and downloading over 5 million articles from JSTOR, and then disseminating them online.

Supposedly because of the stress of the charges and the trial, as well as a likely propensity for depression, Aaron took his life away in 2013.

Swartz's family and partner created a website in his memory, spreading the following statement: "He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself, but to make the Internet and the world a fairer and better place."

9) Raven Adler

1988 (although I'm not sure) - living

In the list for: Breaking gender stereotypes in cybersec\hacking culture.

Believe it or not (but with little surprise), the world of technology is still a strongly male-centric world.

Among the personalities behind the scenes who have helped to dismantle this paradigm is certainly Raven Adler.

While hating the definition of "female hacker" or denigrating the concept of gender differences within the computer world, Raven has nevertheless contributed significantly to the acceptance of women's contribution in extremely technical and extremely male-centric fields.

Raven was the first woman to ever give a lecture at the famous DEFCON events.

Born into a fairly well-to-do family, it was clear that Alder was a brainiac from a young age, graduating high school at fourteen and college at eighteen.

She's a strong believer people should do great job for the sake of it and out of passions than to pursue personal achievements or other benefits.

She's well known and respected for the contribution she gave to cybersecurity and ethical hacking culture.

10) Ilya Zhitomirskiy

1989 - 2011

In the list for: Ideator and creator of an alternative social network model.

Born in Russia in 1989, an early talent for mathematics and computer science. He moved to the USA, finished secondary school and enrolled at the University of Maryland, continuing his scientific studies.

A true visionary, as well as a skilled programmer, he and three other classmates embarked on a crusade against the commercial use of the Internet at the expense of user privacy (Facebook already had 900 million accounts and Twitter was just within its years of exponential growth).

They decide to found a new social network distributed through nodes (pods), non-proprietary, non-profit, called DIASPORA.

The team gets 200K USD in fundings with the first crowdfunding, moves to San Francisco, even receives a mention and a contribution from Zuckerberg. Diaspora is named the "Best Social Network of the Year" by Mashable.

Great are the expectations on this social network, but just at the same time of the public go-live of Diaspora beta, on November 12, 2011, Ilya is found dead in his room. He had decided to leave his studies to focus totally on the development of his startup just a few day before.

A young Russian guy in California, struggling with a free social network, is found dead in mysterious lawsuits, the news makes a sensation.

Only in 2012 it is clarified that it was suicide, even if the causes remain discordant.

Diaspora was later incubated by Y Combinator but without much luck: currently the social network has 200,000 users, mostly inactive, a prehistoric GUI, and, officially, despite being publicly accessible, it is still in beta.

In September of last year, Zhitomiriskiy told York Magazine that Diaspora was a project of pure passion. "There's something deeper than making money off stuff," he said. "Being a part of creating stuff for the universe is awesome."

His friends speak of him as someone who really believed in a different world and who would do his part at any cost to improve people's lives.

But many are also asking the obvious question: Did the pressure of running a struggling, much-hyped start-up—not just any start-up, but a Facebook killer—contribute to Zhitomirskiy's death?

Disclaimer: All the characters are sorted by date of birth and the info and photos reported as a result of online research, papers, books, video interviews. Only in the case of Carlo Strozzi did I interact directly with him.

Obviously this list should be much longer. And then these subjects are unknown but not "so unknown", they ended up on books or Wikipedia pages, having interviews.

There will certainly be darker but equally deserving characters.

Moreover, their contributions have different dimensions and impacts, so I do not want to compare them or point them out as more deserving than others. I decided to limit myself to the 10 characters I liked the most for some even personal reason.

However, I hope I made you a little curious and encouraged you to look for other strange and little known stories!