In the world of FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) there are individuals who stand out from the thousands who contribute (and to whom we should all be grateful!). Some distinguish themselves by the quality or quantity of their innovations, support or promotion of FOSS ideals, some by force of personality and leadership. The Pantheon of Heroes is not limited to individuals either - IBM for instance has supported Linux and greatly furthered it's adoption by corporations.
Among individuals that immediately come to mind are Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds - the two giants.
Stallman, known within the FOSS community as "RMS", founded the Free Software Foundation and started the GNU Project that contributed many of the tools with which Linux was built. He also originated the GPL, or General Public License, to protect free software. It's essential point is to require derived works to be licensed under the same terms, thus insuring the freedom to copy, modify or distribute the code. Outspoken and controversial, RMS deserves great credit for building the foundations that allowed the proliferation of FOSS.
Linus Torvalds great achievement was the creation of the Linux operating system, or more properly, the Linux kernel. (As is common, this blog will use "Linux" more generally to mean the whole OS).
Less ideologically driven than RMS, Linus is seen as a brilliant programmer, and leader of kernel development. Like RMS, and despite his celebrity, Linus can be outspoken and often provokes arguments on the Linux Kernel Mailing List. He is widely honored for starting nothing less than a revolution, affecting not only normal computer users but competition between giant corporations as well. In 2004, he was named one of the most influential people in the world by the Time Magazine article "Linus Torvalds: The Free-Software Champion" by Lawrence Lessig.
Another personality famous enough to be known to the community simply by his initials, ESR, Eric S. Raymond is a famous hacker and open source spokesman. ESR is the author of "The Cathedral And The Bazaar", a famous essay about contrasting software development models. From Wikipedia:
"The essay's central thesis is Raymond's proposition that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (which he terms Linus's Law): the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny, and experimentation, the more rapidly all forms of bugs will be discovered." His essay is credited with pushing Netscape Communications to release the source code for the Netscape Browser, and allowing the foundation of the Mozilla project, the creators of Firefox.
Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, is a very well known FOSS advocate and spokesman. He has spoken before the UN on Open source, been Debian project leader, and founder of the Linux Standard Base project to mention only a few of his accomplishments. More pragmatic in his outlook than RMS, Perens promotes the economic benefits of FOSS:
"Open Source can be explained entirely within the context of conventional open-market economics. Indeed, it turns out that it has much stronger ties to the phenomenon of capitalism than you may have appreciated." Quoted from perens.com.
Coming much later on the scene, Mark Shuttleworth, besides being famous as a space tourist, is familiar as the founder of Canonical, which develops Ubuntu Linux, and it's sub-projects Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Edubuntu.
Ubuntu consistently tops the DistroWatch list and is arguably the most popular Linux distribution. Despite criticizm, it's hard to deny the influence Ubuntu has had in attracting new users. With a larger user base comes more influence with hardware manufacturers, more people reporting bugs, more people defending FOSS (not just Linux) against attack.
Hats off to you all, and all the others unmentioned in this very brief list.
For more on the people and organizations shaping the state of technology with Free/Open Source software see:
Free Software Magazine