5 People Who Built Your Computer

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Untold thousands of people are responsible for the myriad components and software elements that make up your computer. Here are a few of them.

1. Eric Michelman // The Scroll Wheel 

Eric Michelman, a member of Microsoft’s Excel team, was inspired to improve upon the frenetic mouse-clicking of arrows after watching users navigate spreadsheets. His first idea was what he called a “zoom lever” to be manipulated by the user’s non-mouse hand. Microsoft’s hardware division expressed little enthusiasm for the invention, as zoom had minimal application beyond Excel. Some users of his prototype (which was made from a joystick) suggested the addition of a panning function, which Michelman added to a subsequent design. Eventually, the hardware division returned to him, stating that they had considered putting a wheel on a mouse, but didn’t know what they might use it for. Michelman, with his research and development experience with the lever, had the solution

There was a catch: Microsoft Hardware said they’d only build the new wheeled mouse if he could get Office to support it. Michelman first convinced the Excel team to get onboard, and then Word, though the wheel would do different things in different applications—zoom in one and scroll in the other. After internal debate, it was decided to standardize the wheel’s function. By the time the revolutionary new mouse shipped, Michelman had recruited support from all of Microsoft’s major software teams, giving the design momentum enough to take over the industry.

If you’re not wheeling your way down this article, you’re probably sliding down it with a track pad. For that invention you can thank George E. Gerpheide, who despised computer mice and vowed to improve upon them. He named his invention “the cat.” Apple was the first company to adopt it (sans name), incorporating it in the 1994 PowerBook laptop computer.

2. Ed Catmull // Pretty much everything that’s 3D

Wikimedia Commons , CC BY 2.0 (Catmull) / iStock (3D man)

When the Walt Disney Company bought Pixar in 2006, Ed Catmull became the head of both Disney Animation and Pixar. For all but the most attuned, Pixar seemed to come out of nowhere with the release of Toy Story, and it’s easy to think that Catmull was the businessman to John Lasseter’s filmmaker. While there’s no question that Catmull is an astonishingly successful studio executive, that’s just a small part of his astonishing resume. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah. His area of interest was 3D graphics, and his dream from childhood was to create the first feature-length animated film. 

Before Catmull could satisfy his lifelong ambition, however, he first had to invent the technology necessary to do so. For his doctoral thesis, Catmull devised something called texture mapping, in which “photographs can be ‘mapped’ onto patches thus providing a means for putting a texture on computer-generated pictures.” Today, texture mapping is used in one form or another in pretty much every 3D game, application, and film in existence. He also developed a type of spline-curve called the Catmull-Rom Curve (alongside Raphael Rom) and independently, the Z-Buffer, which helps determines what can be seen in a 3D rendering, and what is concealed. In short, a side effect of his efforts to make movies was the creation of every major form of modern entertainment.

3. Susan Kare // The Look of Computing 

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The look-and-feel of your computer’s operating system is easily taken for granted. Of course the mouse pointer is a little arrow. Of course the disk is for saving files. Of course there’s a clock when your computer is thinking. For every little detail that is obvious in hindsight, someone first had to invent it, design it, and draw it. One of the most successful such design pioneers is Susan Kare.

Kare joined Apple after completing her Ph.D. in fine arts at New York University. Her job was to design fonts and icons for the graphical user interface of a secret new computer called the Macintosh. The job was made doubly challenging in a pre-GUI world, in that most of the computing metaphors we know today didn’t yet exist. In other words, she was not only inventing a major percentage of the look of computing, but also teaching the masses how to understand and use these powerful new machines—using only a handful of pixels to do so.

Her work isn’t limited to the Mac. Chicago, one of the fonts she designed for the original Macintosh in 1984, was resurrected for Apple’s next big product, the iPod. She also worked for NeXT, Microsoft, and IBM, and designed everything from the solitaire deck and fundamental window elements in Microsoft Windows to the “lasso” that is still part of Adobe Photoshop. As decades have elapsed, her metaphors are largely unchanged. Even as icons change for increasingly precise displays, the updates tend to be iterative—revisions of her originals, in other words, as opposed to replacements.

4. Ajay Bhatt // USB 

When Intel’s Ajay Bhatt began his quest to reduce the needless complexity of cables and computer ports, the major vendors were leery. Keyboard, printers, displays, and mice (to name only four devices) each had their own cable and own types of ports. Such a system of wiring was “more difficult than it needed to be,” he told CNN. His design for a new “universal” port called for a fundamental rethinking of how computers and devices should interact, and would affect nearly every printer and peripheral on the market. But because the major computer vendors each had different customers, uses, and needs, a unified port standard was not an obvious move. "In order to be successful in anything like this you have to look at the problem from their perspective,” he said. “So, if I went to, say, Compaq—which is now Hewlett-Packard—we used to think about their issues and what problems they faced.” His six years of working with the industry’s key players paid off, however, and today there are over 10 billion USB devices on the market. The latest iteration of his design, called USB-C, is set to be the only port on the latest MacBook, replacing even the power cable.