Giants of Open Source

Giants of the Open Source Community

This feature pays homage to individuals which, in our opinion, have made the most important contribution to the world of open source.

It’s true that open source is collective power in action. The most important open source projects are frequently coded by a collection of experts, that build, share, and improve the software together, then make it available to everyone. But this does not diminish the importance of an individual’s contribution to the popularity of open source software.

Without open source, many of the systems and applications we take for granted simply would not be around. All the key players in computing come from, or owe a huge creative debt to, the open-source community, and continue to rely on its talent and expertise when developing new products.

The availability of free open source software has huge potential benefits, allowing users to share their collective experience to improve the software as its developed, as well as giving access to essential software to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Obviously limiting the selection to only 10 open source giants made for some really difficult decisions. There are so many others who play key contributions to the development of open source. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.


1) Alan Turing

The Pioneer of Computer Science: Mathematician and Code-Breaker

Alan Turing is famous for being a zany yet intense British mathematician, who conceived modern computing. In 1936, Turing published a paper “On Computable Numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem” that is today recognised as the foundation of computer science. This paper introduced the notion of the ‘Universal Machine’ that was able to decode and perform any set of instructions.

10 years on, this idea was transformed into a practical plan for an electronic computer, able to run any program. A digital computer in the modern sense, able to store programs in its memory. His report emphasized the unlimited range of applications opened up by this technological revolution, and software developments ahead of parallel US developments. In essence, Turing introduced the world to recognizable programming. He had created and managed the first software for the computer. For this alone, Turing laid the foundation for the possibility of open source software to be conceived.

In 1950, Turing published a philosophical paper titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence including the idea of an ‘imitation game’ for comparing human and machine outputs, now called the Turing Test. This paper remains his best known work, one of the most cited in philosophical literature, and a key contribution to the field of Artificial Intelligence.

Turing was a full participant in the development of modern computer science both in theory and in practice. He rightly deserves our number 1 spot. It’s largely thanks to his genius that you are reading this text on your computer. When he passed away in 1954, Turing left the world a permanent legacy.


2) Linus Torvalds

Creator and principal developer of the Linux kernel

Linus Torvalds is the creator of the original Linux operating system, and continues to determine what changes are made to the Linux kernel – the code that enables hardware and software to work together.

It may be a surprise to learn that Torvalds did not intend to use the open-source methodology. He made Linux publically available because he was interested in receiving comments on the project. And the first release forbade any commercial use.

Linux is the best known and most used open source operating system. The success of Linux is mostly due to its open source nature. And open source’s popularity has blossomed largely because of Linux. A symbiotic relationship.

Today a variety of Linux-based systems power much of the world’s computer servers, PCs, set-top boxes, smartphones, tablets, network routers, and supercomputers.

Torvalds is somewhat of a controversial figure, with a culture of calling out Linux kernel developers who release code that doesn’t meet his exacting standards.

Torvalds’s open source advocacy also extends to the distributed revision control system Git released under the open source licenses GNU GPL v2 and GNU LGPL v2.1.


 3) Tim Berners-Lee

The Inventor of the World Wide Web

In 1980, while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Tim Berners-Lee set out the concept of a global system, based on hypertext, that would allow researchers anywhere to share information. He also built a prototype called ‘Enquire’, the predecessor to the World Wide Web.

Nine years later, Berners-Lee published a paper called ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ in which he recommended developing a networked hypertext system, to create a system for sharing and distributing information not just within a company, but globally. He named it the World Wide Web. This idea has scaled up ever since, as very few 1980s technologies have done. While the concept of hypertext was then not original, he fused technologies and concepts that were already known and understood.

He went on to create WorldWideWeb, the first web browser and editor. The source code was released into the public domain on April 30, 1993. The world’s first website, http://info.cern.ch, was launched on 6 August 1991. It explained the World Wide Web concept and gave users an introduction to getting started with their own websites.

In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium at the Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.


4) Richard Stallman

Richard StallmanSoftware freedom evangelist and founder of the Free Software Foundation

Richard Stallman is a pioneer of the free software movement. His vision is of software that has no secrets, that people can share freely. In his words, free software means you are free to study what the program does, change it to suit your needs, distribute copies to other people and publish improved versions. And if you are not a developer, you can get someone else to do it for you. To write good software, developers need to read a lot of software code and write a lot of software. Open source is the solution.

Stallman launched the development of a free operating system called GNU in 1978. The original purpose of the GNU project was the creation of a free operating system. The Hurd is the GNU project’s replacement for UNIX, an operating system kernel, but there’s still no stable release.

Besides this and the Free Software Foundation, Stallman developed the GNU Compiler Collection, GNU Emacs and wrote the GNU General Public License (GPL). The fundamental property of GPL is a very simple “tit-for-tat” model: I’ll give you my improvements, if you promise to give your improvements back.

Like Torvalds, Richard Stallman is a controversial figure. He’s possibly best described as the marmite of open source – folk either love or hate him.


5) Mark Shuttleworth

Mark ShuttleworthFounder of the Open Source Software Platform Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth is a South African entrepreneur and space tourist.

In the late 1990s, Mark foraged into the world of open source by participating as one of developers of the Debian operating system, a Unix-like system that is composed entirely of free software, most of which is under the GPL.

Shuttleworth formed the Shuttleworth Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to social innovation. He went on to found Canonical Ltd, the primary sponsor of distribution of the Ubuntu operating system. Ubuntu is a Debian-based Linux operating system for computers, tablets, and smartphones. The Ubuntu project is prominently committed to the principles of open-source software development.

Shuttleworth’s contribution to the open source community is remarkable. The public perception of open source software has been markedly improved by the Ubuntu distribution.

Ubuntu is able to offer itself as a no-charge download thanks to thousands of developers across the world volunteering to develop the open-source project.

The impact of Ubuntu should not be underestimated. It has played an important role in keeping Linux relevant for the desktop and developer. And it has spawned various “flavours” including Xubuntu and Ubuntu MATE.


6) Hadley Wickham

Hadley WickhamLeading Light of Data Science

Hadley Wickham is a New Zealand statistician best known for the development of numerous open-source statistical analysis software packages for R. R is a language and environment for statistical computing and graphics, and one of the most important programming languages for data science.

Wickham is rightly recognized as revolutionizing R, and as an open source pioneer with most of his work published in the form of open source R code. Data science tools such as ggplot2, tidyr, dplyr, stringr, and lubridate are important packages he has developed. ggplot2 is a plotting system for R. He has also released important tools for importing data and software engineering.

Wickham has enabled millions of people become more efficient at their jobs, changing the way their conceptualize data visualization.

He is currently employer as Chief Scientist at RStudio. He is also a writer, educator, and speaker promoting the use of R for data science.

In 2006 Wickham won the John Chambers Award for Statistical Computing for his work on the ggplot and reshape R packages, and named a Fellow by the American Statistical Association in 2015 for “pivotal contributions to statistical practice through innovative and pioneering research in statistical graphics and computing”.

Wickham has also written important books on data science. And he is the co-author of R for Data Science, a work licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. Read more about this book and other open source R books.


7) Guido van Rossum

Guido van RossumAuthor of the Python Programming Language

Guido van Rossum is a Dutch programmer who created the high-level Python programming language, as a successor to the ABC programming language. It’s an excellent choice for a first programming language.

Python is one of the most popular and versatile languages in open source circles. van Rossum warrants inclusion in the top 10 open source protagonists, in part because the Python language and its standard library play such a vital role in thousands of open source applications and libraries. He helped establish and ran the Python Social Auth and python.org.

Python is an increasingly popular language for aspiring data scientists and for software development in general. It helps guide developers to write readable code, and ensures development is not bogged down. He caused controversy with the release of Python 3.0, as it is a backwards-incompatible release.

Python interpreters are available for many operating systems, allowing Python code to run on a wide variety of systems.

Python is developed under an OSI-approved open source license, making it freely usable and distributable, even for commercial use.

A former Google employee, van Rossum has worked as a staff engineer for Dropbox since 2013.


8) Dennis Ritchie

Dennis RitchieThe Inventor of the C programming language

Dennis Ritchie was an American computer scientist who created the groundbreaking C programming language, and was one of the creators of the equally hugely influential Unix operating system.

A large number of modern technologies depend on the work Ritchie and coworkers did on Unix and C in the early days of the computer revolution. He played a key role in shaping today’s computing environment providing pivotal infrastructure and tools.

Unix’s influence has been felt in many ways. It established many software engineering principles that are still in use. It was the operating system of choice for the internet, it started the open source movement, and has been translated to run on many different types of hardware.

It was also at Bell Labs that Ritchie created C, one of the most widely used programming languages in the world. C bridged the gap between machine code and programming languages such as Fortran and Cobol. C is common to almost every modern-day open source developer. The language continues to be widely used today in application, operating system, and embedded system development.

Ritchie was also the co-author of the book The C Programming Language in 1978, a bestselling primer for the next 15 years.

Ritchie passed away in 2011.


9) Brian Kernighan

Brian Kernighan

Co-Inventor of UNIX, AWK and AMPL

This compilation would not be complete without an entry for Brian Kernighan, a Canadian computer scientist who worked alongside Dennis Ritchie.

Kernighan contributed to the development of Unix, and is co-author of the pioneering AWK and AMPL programming languages.

AWK is a programming language designed for text processing and typically used as a data extraction and reporting tool, while AMPL is a language for specifying optimization problems such as linear programming.

Kernighan is best known for his co-authorship with Dennis Ritchie of the first book on the C programming languages, one of the most used computer programming languages. While Kernighan played no part in the birth of C, he was influential in convincing Dennis Ritchie to co-write the seminal book.

C has played an important impact on other programming languages including Python, PHP, and Perl.

There are many open source compilers for C. The most notable example is GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection.


10) Bjarne Stroustrup

The creator of the most commonly taught programming language C++

Bjarne Stroustrup is a hugely eminent computer scientist. In the late 1970s, Stroustrup applied the idea of “classes” to the C programming language to create a new language that allows for high level abstraction — but is efficient and close to the hardware.

Stroustrup is not the inventor of object oriented programming, but he played a vital contribution in making it become mainstream.

C++ is a code standard, not a specific implementation. As such, there’s no source code available for the language itself. But C++ went on to become one of the most popular programming languages ever created. A measure of success for a programming language is its impact of its applications. A plethora of open source projects are written in C++.

C++ was designed to be a “general use” language, it runs on almost all platforms and shows up almost everywhere, especially in video games and embedded systems. There are 4.5 million users of C++ with the language deployed used in every industry and at every level. To develop large complex software, you need to abstract away from it i.e. writing the software in your terms. And you also need performance. C++ ticks both boxes for open source software.


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