Past and Present Geek Heroes: 8 Innovators and Legends

Maximum PC Staff

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes have been wowing us with his fierce intellect, uncanny forensic prowess and rampant drug abuse since 1887. In 1939, Batman hit the scene, filling the criminals of Gotham with dread thanks to his highly developed detective skills, an encyclopedic knowledge of multiple sciences, wicked gadgets and a deep grief-fuelled psychosis. Montgomery Scott —Scotty—the beloved Chief Engineer of the U.S.S Enterprise: Thanks to his knowledge of particle physics, warp theory and a lifetime’s worth of hands-on experience, he was able to pluck his crew mates from the clutches of a fiery death countless times. Sadly, he too had his faults: routinely lied to his superior officers about repair times and spent his off-hours soaking himself in scotch, whiskey and something green? Yeah…

Don’t we geeks deserve a better class of hero? If our heroes are flawed, can’t they at least be real people? We’d like to think so. There have been so many scientists, innovators and educators throughout history that deserve to be elevated higher than the fictional ideals we idolize and talk about on a daily basis. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, we’ve put together a short list of eight real-life geek heroes who, while never doing battle with the Klingons, jumped from rooftop to rooftop or solved an crime that confounded Scotland Yard, still managed to make the lives of thousands—even millions of people in some cases—a little bit brighter.

Bill Gates

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that William Henry Gates was one of the most influential thinkers and industrialists of the  20 th century. Gates is, despite his decades in the public eye something of an enigma: a man so intelligent that through his genius he was able to nurture Microsoft into one of the largest corporate entities the world has ever known, yet for all of his intellect has never managed to find a flattering haircut. Gate’s passion for technology and aggressive business tactics led to Microsoft powered products being baked into the desktop and portable computing hardware in the world today. While there were certainly a few missteps under Gate’s watch of the company (Microsoft Bob? Windows ME? We’re looking at you), and the odd BSOD there’s no denying that had it not been for his influence and vision, the computing world might well have been a much less user-friendly place than the one we all take for granted today.

Even before Gates decided to slowly phase himself out of from his position as Microsoft’s Big Kahuna in 2006, the nerd armour he’d worn while storming the ramparts of Silicon Valley for close to three decades had given way to a surprisingly soft pair of philantrophic footie pyjamas on several occasions.  In 1994, he sold a good chunk of his Microsoft stock and used the money to found the William H. Gates Foundation. Six years later, Gates and his wife Melinda opted to combine their charitable efforts and create the cleverly named Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which with it’s $37 billion endowment has done a tremendous amount of work to provide healthcare and education to the impovershed. Today, their Foundation is the largest transparently operated charity in the world. Anyone wishing to contribute to the foundation are encouraged to check into how their money will be spent and are given the means to do so.

Bill Gates is a Geek Hero in the most basic of terms. With his burning passion for technology, and the occasional hankering for a game of bridge, Gates is most assuredly a geek. What makes him heroic aren’t his material passions, but his passion for something much more important: The improvement of mankind, a cause he and his spouse are so dedicated to, they were willing to invest their own fortunes in an effort to see notable change in the fortunes of thousands of men, women and children in their own lifetimes. Let’s see Batman pull that off.

Dr. Frederick Banting

Sure, Canada might be best known its Tim Hortons Coffee, lousy winters, and snipers but for diabetics around the world Canada is also the country the gave birth to their salvation. Frederick Banting was born in a small rural town 37 miles north of Toronto in 1891, and by 1916, had graduated from medical school. Banting joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps and served overseas during the First Wold War with the 4 th Canadian Division in France where he spent two years trying to save the lives of wounded and dying soldiers. While operating on a patient, Banting himself was wounded by shrapnel from an exploding German shell. Just like Honey Badger, Banting didn’t care—he just kept on working. For his efforts, Dr. Banting was awarded with the Military Cross.

While working as a part-time university instructor in 1920, Banting stumbled upon his life work while reading an old medical journal. After reading about the pancreatic secretions, he remembered that in medical school it had been discussed that the organ oozed a substance that was thought to regulate the amount of sugar in a body’s blood stream. With the aid of student research assistant by the name of Charles Best, Banting set to work to unravel the organ’s mysteries. By 1921 Banting had proven that insulin could control diabetes found in dogs. That same year, with the aid of a bio-chemist, Banting moved to human trials of the drug. Their first test subject was a 14 year old boy dying of diabetes. Using an insulin extract that Banting’s research team had pulled from the pancreas of an ox, the patient recovered, proving that their research had been a success. Since then, Banting’s discovery has not only saved the lives of millions of diabetics around the world, but also improved the overall quality of their lives.

Now there’s a geek with some tight science that’s worth looking up to.

Galileo Galilei

Depending on who you ask, Galileo is credited as being the father of modern physics, the father of the modern science, or the father of modern observational astronomy. That’s a whole lotta baby daddy action for one man. Born in 1564, these days he’s best known for his belief in heliocentrisim—the belief that the earth, along with the rest of the planets in the solar system, revolve around a stationary sun.

Back in Galileo’s day, that was dangerous crazy talk. The Catholic Church had the last word in most matters back then, and as the Bible stated "the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” it was their view point that the Sun and the rest of the universe rotated around the Earth.  The Church wasn’t thrilled to have anyone, no matter how intelligent they were, try to prove otherwise. In the face of an angry Pope, and an investigation by the Roman Inquisition that led the church to try him for suspicion of heresy in 1633, Galileo still maintained that his theory of a heliocentric solar system was correct. Due to his beliefs, Galileo was found“"vehemently suspect of heresy”, which in an era where the Catholic Church held a substantial amount of political power, was a bad thing. Galileo was sentenced to life in prison by the Inquisition, but later was communed to living under house arrest where he remained until his death in 1642 at the age of 77. Despite the fact that his belief in heliocentrisim was proven to be correct, it wasn’t until 400 years after his death that Galileo received an apology for how he had been treated by the Vatican.

For his unflappable faith in science even in the face of serious social and personal repercussions, we’re declaring this telescope-loving science geek a hero. May he serve as a fearless example of dedication in the face of adversity to us all.

Louis Pasteur

Born as the son of a leather tanner in 1822, Louis Pasteur grew up to be an super geek of epic proportions. After a brief dalliance as a professor of physics in France, Pasteur became a professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, where he - along with Ferdinand Cohn and Robert Koch - came to be regarded as one of the founders of microbiology.

After watching three of his five children die of typhoid, Pasteur allowed the pain of his loss to drive him to find treatments and cures for a number of sicknesses and diseases like anthrax and Puerperal fever, as well as diseases in a wide variety of animals, and a vaccine for rabies. Additionally, Pasteur discovered that by heating foods like wine, beer, or milk to a specific temperature and then immediately cooling it, it was possible to slow the growth of harmful microbial growth. This process, which has come to be known as—you guessed it—pasteurization, not only ensures that the foods subjected to the process sour at a much slower rate but also are much less likely to contain viable pathogens which could harbour disease.

When he wasn’t busy curing what ails us, Pasteur also managed to find the time to write a doctoral thesis on the polarization of light, proved that the germ theory of disease was correct and, if you believe what True Blood has to say, became a vampire, who in 1982, was hard at work trying to create a synthetic blood substitute which would allow vampires to finally forego feeding on their next door neighbours. If all that doesn’t have Geek Hero written all over it, what does?

Shigeru Miyamoto

You don’t have cure anything or take sustain a shrapnel wound to be a hero (that said, it doesn’t hurt). We chose to add Shigeru Miyamoto to this list for what he has managed to provide to humanity in his geeky lifetime: Joy. Responsible for creating some of the most popular video games in history, Miyamoto has kept the thumbs and fingers of gaming fanatics raw and sore for over 30 years.

While the first arcade games he was involved in enjoyed moderate success in Japan, Miyamoto will always be remembered as the man who brought stories to video games. As most folks know, Miyamoto’s game Donkey Kong features a plumber (although he was originally imagined to be a carpenter, go figure), a woman and a giant gorilla. What you might not know is that they started off their lives, in Miyamoto’s head, as a reworking of Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl, and the love triangle the three characters had long suffered through in the Popeye comic strips and short films. As thin as the game’s back story was, it was more than anyone had ever attempted before.

Until the advent of Donkey Kong, video games were typically built first and given an explanation and a name later. Thanks to Miyamoto, developers were forced to up their game and provide a reason for why what was happened in their products was transpiring—a move that helped to transition a quarter-eating curiosity into the entertainment phenomenon that it is today. After completing Donkey Kong, Miyamoto took the game’s protagonist along with him, and transformed the pixelated little fellow into the most successful, and best loved characters in gaming history: Mario. Since then, Miyamoto has gone on to either create or produce well over one hundred other video games, many of which are considered to be amongst the finest ever made. If that’s not enough to prove his geeky worth, when he’s not hard at work finding new ways to let us stay at play, Miyamoto spends his time playing the mandolin and banjo, breeding dogs and, just for fun, attempting to guess the size of random objects.

For everything he’s done for the geeks who play, develop and generally love video games as we know them today, Shigeru Miyamoto is an unabashed real life Geek Hero.

Larry Ellison

Thanks to the success of Oracle, the enterprise software company he co-found and currently sits as CEO of, Larry Ellison is the third richest person in the United States (he's estimated to be worth roughly $33 billion dollars). An intelligent and outspoken individual, Ellison is known for his love of tennis, expensive sports cars, pricey personal jets, insanely expensive watercraft, and of course, in response to hearing that Hewlett Packard had fired Mark Hurd, stating “"The H.P. board just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago."

But did you know that, much like Bill Gates, he’s also responsible for shovelling massive amounts of cash into charitable causes? Looking past the fact that Ellison was ordered by the courts to pay $100 million dollars to charity as a penalty after being caught up in an insider trading scandal, in 2004, Forbes reported that he donated $151,092,103 to various charities. He also pledged to provide Harvard University with a $115 million dollar endowment, which he took back… and then offered again. On top of all of this, Ellison also signed on with The Giving Pledge—a campaign designed to convince the most affluent individuals in the United States to give up 50% or more of their fortunes in the name of philanthropic causes.

In Larry Ellison’s case, it’s not the fact that he decided to dish out cash to those in need that makes him a geek hero—it’s the fact that based on his past behaviours, he gave the money against his better nature. In doing something wonderful despite himself, he serves as an example to us all.

Salman Khan

No, not the actor, the other guy. With three degrees—a BS in Mathematics, another in electrical engineering and one in computer science—from M.I.T., it goes without saying that Salman Khan is a pretty smart guy. Khan’s career in education began back in 2004 when he began tutoring his cousin to help her with her math. He was so good at it that, in no time, friends and other members of his family were asking him to help their children with their educations as well.

By 2006, Khan elected to set up a YouTube account so that anyone who needed his help could have it, bringing Khan’s easy to understand video lessons about Math science and physics into the mainstream. At the time,  Khan was working as a successful hedge fund manager but in late 2009 he found that he received such a degree of satisfaction from teaching, he quit his job and founded the Khan Academy.

Today, Khan’s educational videos receive thousands of hits on a regular basis and help students from around the world to better themselves through a more through understanding of subjects they once found vexing. Khan has expanded the Khan Academy’s curriculum to include a wide variety of topics including biology, American civics, calculus, history, chemistry, computer science, and finance. Best of all, the Khan Academy’s 2400+ videos are available to students and educators from around the world free of charge, making the gifts that only an excellent education can provide something everyone can possess.

A master of multiple academic disciplines who shares the wealth? Yeah, that’s a geek hero in our books.

Leonardo Da Vinci

One definition of the word ‘geek’ is someone who has chosen concentration rather than conformity. Such an individual becomes so knowledgable and passionate about a given topic that they stand outside of the mainstream of society. With this in mind, there’s never been a bigger geek than Leonardo Da Vinci.

During the Renaissance, Da Vinci was a Renaissance man’s Renaissance man, with passions and aptitudes for mathematics, music, engineering, science, art, cartography, writing, architecture and invention. Five hundred years before they were ever brought to life, Da Vinci conceptualized the manned tank and helicopter, and envisioned methods by which men could fly like a bird that are echoed in design of many aircraft to this day.

Also considered by many to be the finest painter and sculptor of his era, and it shows: One look at the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper and you know that when it came to paint, the man had it going on. Da Vinci brought his artistic skills to bear on his scientific ventures as well. His notes on anatomy and sketches of the many devices he envisioned were a thing of beauty — so much so that the 13,000 pages of his notebooks are considered to be works of art in and of themselves.

What makes Da Vinci a geek hero? His vision and passion for the world around him. For Da Vinci, being a part of the world was not enough. He needed to understand it and improve upon it. That desire to make the world a better place is the mark of a true hero, geeky or otherwise.

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