TechfestNW 2013: Ward Cunningham

The Pioneer


"You know how you can take two fingers and stretch a picture out?" says Ward Cunningham about the now ubiquitous phone feature. "I actually did that at Tektronix with the two primary controls of an oscilloscope.” 

Except here's the thing: Cunningham did that in the late '70s. 

He'd sent out a blind request to Tektronix in 1978 looking for work after graduating from Purdue. A friend had told him, "Ward, you gotta come out. They're right on top of all the best technology." The Indiana native has been in the Portland area ever since.

Cunningham helped develop the computer language Smalltalk, which Steve Jobs used to create the first Macintosh, and streamlined the process for object-oriented design and programming. But arguably his most recognizable achievement is the creation of the wiki. 

"I knew the Web was going to be a big deal," he says, "so I wanted to create this new thing that helped distribute information in a new way, and collaborate on creative work in a Web browser. Then the encyclopedia people came along and that's when the name became commonplace.” 

These days, Cunningham works primarily as an engineer and consultant for AboutUs, a Web directory that offers marketing and development advice, as well as mentoring the next generation of tech firms chosen for the Portland Incubator Experiment. 

Just as he saw that Portland was the place to be in the early days of the tech explosion, Cunningham is confident of the city's future as a hub for startup innovators. 

"Sometimes people will talk to startups and ask them, 'Why aren't you here in the Bay Area?'" he says. "It's not about funding. It's that it's easier to think here in Portland. There's less noise. It's a town that's big enough to have entrepreneuring activity but small enough so it’s not crazy.” 

Cunningham is looking past the current boomlet in phone apps to the responsive design offered by HTML5. "It's a good time right now," Cunningham says. "I tell my friends it's a good time to be a computer programmer. They tell me, 'Oh my God, it's so much work. It keeps getting reinvented.' I just say, 'I was an expert, so it must not be that hard.’” 

TFNW profiles: Rick Turoczy (TFNW curator, PIE PDX)Tyson Evans (NYTimes)Ward Cuningham (Wiki Inventor)Michelle Rowley (Code Scouts)Jackson Gariety (TechStars, teen entrepreneur) 

TFNW features: MFNW Installation by InstrumentPDX Drone ChallengeGoogle Gogglers

Tickets and official site:

GO: Ward Cunningham (with Nigel Kersten) speaks about open source Sunday, Sept. 8, on the PDC Stage, OMNIMAX at OMSI. 2 pm.

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