Timeline: Tinkerers Who Made It to the Top

People behind influential companies and technologies

15 September 2017

In celebration of The Institute’s 40th anniversary year, we’re presenting a series of timelines highlighting topics and technologies that have moved forward significantly during the past four decades.

Inventors are born tinkerers. Among the most famous was Benjamin Franklin, whose well-known kite experiment is memorialized in the diamond shape of IEEE’s logo. His inventions and discoveries from the 1700s include bifocals, a urinary catheter, and swim fins.

Samuel Morse, who dreamed of becoming a great painter, became obsessed with the idea of using electricity to transmit words over a length of wire. Morse, a professor of fine arts at New York University, in New York City, developed the electrical telegraph. Powered by batteries, Morse’s device used electromagnets to move a stylus to record dots and dashes on a moving strip of paper. In 1837 and 1838 Morse publicly demonstrated his electromagnetic recording telegraph to scientists and government officials. His system of dots and dashes became known as Morse code.

When Philo T. Farnsworth was a youngster, he automated his mother’s washing machine and other equipment to speed up the time it took to do chores on his family’s farm. In 1922, 15-year-old Farnsworth drew a picture on the blackboard in his chemistry class that would change the world. He had drawn an electronic camera tube that he called an “image dissector.” The invention received a U.S. patent in 1930. Farnsworth received many recognitions including Time magazine’s 1999 list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

One weekend during the 1950s IEEE Life Fellow Sidney Darlington decided to play around with a new gadget, the transistor. Trying to get more gain from an amplifier the size of a kernel of corn, he eventually found a way to combine several transistors on one chip. He patented the idea, which became known as the Darlington pair. That paved the way for ICs. Darlington’s transistor and its application went on to become required study for EE students everywhere and earned the inventor the 1981 IEEE Medal of Honor.

Computer programmer Gary Kildall built an operating system in 1974 in his toolshed in Pacific Grove, Calif. His OS, Control Program for Microprocessors (CP/M), was the first commercial system to allow a microprocessor-based computer to interface with a disk storage unit. In 2014 it was named an IEEE Milestone.

Scroll through the timeline below to learn about IEEE members and other tinkerers who invented technologies in common use today.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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