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Ask HN: Famous anonymous inventions other than Bitcoin?
180 points by amineazariz on Dec 26, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 131 comments
Do you know famous inventions whose authors have always remained completely anonymous and never reveled their identities ? Other than Bitcoin.

PS: In any field, not only technology, and any time in history.

Many women published research under pseudonyms in the past, for example Sophie Germain:


So I'd argue that many past inventions that are credited to men might actually have been achieved by women scientists publishing under their husbands / colleagues / friends name as a pseudonym.

In Paris I once saw an original print of Marie Curie's book on radioactivity, where her name is given as "Mme Pierre Curie". This probably shows how difficult it was even then to get something published under your own name as a woman (Cover and autor info here: https://www.amazon.fr/Radioactivit%C3%A9-1-Madame-Pierre-Cur...).

> In Paris I once saw an original print of Marie Curie's book on radioactivity, where her name is given as "Mme Pierre Curie". This probably shows how difficult it was even then to get something published under your own name as a woman

Nothing to do with publishing difficulties at all. It was simply the way a married French woman would be addressed at the time - as "Madame [husband's full name]", eg Michelle Obama would be "Mme Barack Obama". (It's still in use in more formal / old-fashioned contexts.) The reader would understand that the author of the book was Pierre Curie's wife, rather than him.

It was simply the way a married French woman would be addressed at the time

Not just in France, and not just in centuries past. I've met women in the United States, England, and Austria who refer to themselves as Mrs. husbands_first_name husbands_last_name.

It's formal. It's not insulting. You can see it commonly in 19th- and early 20th-century literature.

Several of the Christmas cards my wife received this year were addressed that way, plus "and family."

> It's formal. It's not insulting.

It can be both. Many do consider it insulting.

It can be both. Many do consider it insulting.

Personally insulting, or are these people who feel insulted for other people?

The reason I ask is that the women I know who use this convention are not shrinking violets. This is not being imposed upon them by some male-dominated relationship. They are all strong-willed individuals. One is a C-level at a global company.

I know more than one person who would take it very, very personally.

I’m not sure I understand. What kind of a person is offended by how someone else chooses to write their name?

That's the whole point. Their name is /not/ "Mrs. [husband's first and last name]"

There are definitely people I know that would be okay with being addressed this way. There are many I also know who have expressed that this makes them feel less like an individual human and more like an accessory to their husband.

It's not about how. I don't think anyone would mind an honest spelling mistake for example. The issue is what you're saying about them. If you call them by their partner's name it may mean you either don't care about them more than "they belong to Mr X" or that person's life is defined by the existence of their partner. Those kind of views are decades old and some people will actively fight them.

In American movies, I'll sometimes you'll hear "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" when introducing a couple at an extremely formal event where everyone wears tuxedos and such. I've never been to such an event before, so I don't know how accurate that is. But it's definitely something odd I've noticed in movies.

My first wife was an M.D. (and did not change her last name), and we occasionally received wedding invitations addressed to “Mr. and Dr. Aaron Harnly”, which I found hilarious. The endurance of the patriarchy and its subversion, all in one line.

> It's not insulting.

It is unfortunate that you do not consider such blatant, ham-fisted patriarchy as insulting.

Your comment only seems to reinforce the point that

> This probably shows how difficult it was even then to get something published under your own name as a woman

Or are you suggesting that it was not difficult for a woman to publish under her name, only that it was not customary to do so? Can you point to some supporting examples of this, if so?

> (It's still in use in more formal / old-fashioned contexts.)

formal / old-fashioned / misogynistic contexts.

In a pedantic sense it is her own name in the sense that it was a name by which she was referred, though obviously it’s a misogynistic custom which is thankfully uncommon now.

They said it wasnt an example of it without suggesting anything

You dont need to have an opinion or dissertation on the topic of dis/enfranchisement to make this observation

They said it wasn't an example of it, but then presented a historical account which only seemingly reinforces the original claim they were claiming it was not.

> only reinforces the original claim

It didn't though, the "Mme" part stands for mademoiselle, indicating it is a woman. Therefore they weren't pretending to be a man for the purpose of getting a paper published.

> It didn't though, the "Mme" part stands for mademoiselle, indicating it is a woman. Therefore they weren't pretending to be a man for the purpose of getting a paper published.

The specific claim I was addressing is not that one had to pretend to be a man to get something published, the original claim is, once again, that it was difficult to publish under your own name as a woman, as quoted several times now:

> This probably shows how difficult it was even then to get something published under your own name as a woman

The comment that it was customary to use a husband's name preceded by Mme. thus does not negate this original claim, if anything it reinforces it.

> The comment that it was customary to use a husband's name preceded by Mme. thus does not negate this original claim, if anything it reinforces it.

We don't have anything to support or negate the idea of whether a French women could have published in her own name if she was single, or if she was married and addressed herself in a non-customary way.

We just don't and the conversation never went that direction. This is in your interest to understand alone but in a conversation where nobody has provided anything. As such it will be impossible for anyone to prove or disprove your assertions, and may have to be your own area of research, alone.

"Mme" is "Madame", indicating a married woman. "Mmelle" stands for "Mademoiselle", which means an unmarried woman, and in that case it would have her own name (as there is no husband).

Both you and the rebuttal from piaste are correct. "Mme Pierre Curie" was published under her actual name, however lots of women published work under male pseudonyms. Even those who were known by their own names tend to be obscure historical footnotes, not as well remembered as male counterparts.

A few related links:




(Yes, I realize my sources are about mostly writers, not scientists.)

JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter book using her initials to hide her gender, which was recommended by her publisher. She could go back on that, but it's too late now that she's known by it.

> She could go back on that, but it's too late now that she's known by it.

Interesting. I read the first Harry Potter novel (i.e. the german translation) as a kid about 3 or 4 years after it was released. I'm pretty sure I knew the "J" stood for Joanne from the get go.

OTOH, I still can't remember what H.G. Wells' first name was, although I must've looked it up a couple of times by now…

The 1911 Solvay Conference photo illustrates just how exceptional a woman scientist was then: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvay_Conference she's there at the table with Henri Poincaré.

The amount of brainpower in that room is incredible. Now think about it this way: probably half of what was available at the time got lost somehow. Makes you wonder where we'd be technologically if we had not systematically repressed one half of the possible scientists. On the positive side: probably a lot of that research got done anyway, with some guy taking credit for it.

I may be going on a limb here, but I have a sense of the same broken logic here as the ubiquitous argument of lost revenue[1].

To be clear, I don't argue the point of suppression and cultural standards affecting the scientific (or, not specifically, any other) thought, but using such simplistic way to quantify that effect.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_sales

That is an absolute nonsense link that you are trying to make there. Lost sales are sales that make assumptions about every sale as though it is lost as a result of piracy, an alternative and often more convenient mode of delivery.

Denying half (or even more than half) of your citizens access to education and more prestigious stem jobs means you are tossing away an Einstein or a Bohr once every generation or so. The cumulative costs of that are enormous, and are compounding, compared to that a couple of $ of money that does not end up in the pockets of media moguls is very small potatoes.

It's way more than half. All those people are still white.

Well, they are all Europeans. I am not denying that racism existed at the time, but hardly any non-white person lived in Europe back then. (Even nowadays in most European countries the percentage of non-white people is so low that, in a group of 30, finding none is well within statistical error).

Interestingly, many (if not most) of people on that conference were Jews, which were often treated as second-class citizens even before Hitler.

Also, an additional testament how Marie Curie was exceptional was that she was an immigrant from Poland (which didn't even exist when she was born; her initial studies were in secret), and that she is still the only person ever to win two Nobel prizes for two separate fields (physics and chemistry).

If you want to go down that route - which is definitely your right - you could re-shoot a similar picture today and it probably would not show a major shift in demographics. Sad but true.

Didn't knew about her... Fascinating.

The DotA "creator" / last maintainer, IceFrog keeps his identity hidden. It did leak because of a Blizzard lawsuit, but people respect it and don't talk about it.

I think a big reason he's able to stay that way is that his real identity is not a public figure. The only thing ordinary people in the community know about him is his name, so there's nothing to talk about.


> " but people respect it and don't talk about it."

As cool as that would be, it's definitely not Bruno. The creator has been named in law suits between Valve and Blizzard. So while the person's name is easy to find there's not much info on him other that that out there which is indeed pretty cool

People other than xfalcox apparently...

The actual name, not the fact that it was leaked. It's trivial to find, you just have to look for it.

The Euro Sign was designed in secrecy

From Wikipedia[0]:

> There were originally 32 proposals; these were reduced to ten candidates. These ten were put to a public survey. After the survey had narrowed the original ten proposals down to two, it was up to the European Commission to choose the final design. The other designs that were considered are not available for the public to view, nor is any information regarding the designers available for public query. The European Commission considers the process of designing to have been internal and keeps these records secret. The eventual winner was a design created by a team of four experts whose identities have not been revealed. It is assumed that the Belgian graphic designer Alain Billiet was the winner and thus the designer of the euro sign.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euro_sign

William Sealy Gosset, who developed the t-distribution, published under the name 'Student' since his employer (the Guinness Brewery) wouldn't let him publish under his real name.

PaX the cutting edge of kernel security. The anonymous hungarian programmer can be credited with invention of ASLR and many other lowlevel security mechanisms.

Read up on Bourbaki, the original Satoshi.


The names of the members of Bourbaki are now known, as per the Wikipedia link, so they are not an example of persistent anonymity.

The question is probably more interesting if you interpret it as “anonmpys during their time of relevance”.

I suspect there are many where the person that had the idea and did the research is completely anonymous because the person that managed and/or funded the lab made sure they were the ones with the name on the patent and marketing material.

Interesting prompt. Researching, I discovered “The Invention Secrecy Act” — you can read more about it here https://slate.com/technology/2018/05/the-thousands-of-secret...

“Invention secrecy in the U.S. dates back to at least the 1930s, but it really took off in the ’40s, when the development of nuclear weapons was shrouded in classification. It became official policy in 1952 with the Invention Secrecy Act, which allows USPTO to keep patents deemed “detrimental to the national security” on lockdown. Under the act, USPTO’s commissioner of patents became empowered to flag patent applications—even those developed by private citizens—for review by government defense agencies, which could request that certain inventions be kept secret.”

anonymous 4chan user solving a 25 year old math problem


Describing this as 25 year old math problem is a bit misleading. There might have been two or three otherwise not noted mathematicians that have looked at the problem a couple of times after dinner during the last 25 years -- is a better description.

Can you explain how you know that?

I read the article. I see how much published work on the problem is mentioned, and where is it published. In this case, not much. If a mathematical problem is really hard, and really important, of the type to reasonably qualify as a "25 year old problem", you will see a lot of partial results, many different approaches, connections to other ares of mathematics, a lot of work by many people. Nothing like that happened here.

It's an educated guess, which is fair, but it came off as a matter of fact in the way you articulated your claim

What I said is that "very few people cared" is a better description than a "25 year old problem". It is better because it better aligns with the facts presented in the Wired article above and other similar sources, due to reasons above. Nothing here is a guess.

Taste for mathematical fashion.

Historically, most 'for hire' inventions (i.e. invented by employees of a corporation) have been relatively anonymous. This also often extends to suppliers to major corporations. Every now and then you'll hear the story about how person X working at corporation Y invented something you'd recognize. (usually after they've retired or otherwise left the company... funny how that works) But generally the inventors don't receive much, if any, public credit or monetary reward. Granted, Bitcoin is rather unique in that the author has worked to stay anonymous but is effectively only slightly more so than most other inventors working for someone else.

edit: sure, you'll often (but not always) see the actual inventor's name listed in patent applications... along with their manager(s), one or more executives, the lunch cook etc.

Not sure about famous, but some designer drugs might fit this category. E.g. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/APINACA

I would imagine that lots of computer viruses and worms fit this description.

Some of the first polymorphic viruses had very advanced code translation engines, basically JITs before they were common. I wonder if any JIT concepts were invented there?

One example is the DAME which stands for Dark Avenger Mutation Engine. It could recompile DOS viruses into equivalent but different machine code on the fly, including the mutation engine itself.

Link? That is super interesting to me.

Google yields this http://virus.wikidot.com/dark-avenger-mutation-engine

But it sounds a bit more prosaic than OP made it out to be (maybe it's incomplete?)

Also check out season 1 of https://malicious.life/. S1E02 specifically covers The Dark Avenger, but the whole of S1 was awesome (and he rest too. But S1 especially).

Maybe I'm confusing DAME with later mutation engines that had more elaborate ways of transforming the decryptor and payload code. I know there were some pretty sophisticated JIT-type things in the latter part of the DOS virus era.

The same thing can be said about game/software cracking scene groups. I believe they were (still are?) at the forefront of practical reverse engineering techniques.

An extension of that is the emulation scene, but that tends to be done in public for the most part.

I'm not sure it qualifies as an "invention", but they definitely do some incredible work. They're able to pull off full API emulations for things like Steam, Origin and even emulate UWP to a degree that allows applications to be run outside of the traditional UWP system. Professional reversers often use tools developed by crackers - things like x64dbg, ImpRec, unpacking scripts, etc are indispensable.

If it weren't for this community I'd feel far less in control of my own computer.


Think about it, nobody knows who invented the ability to control fire, and yet it is still, by far, the most important technology in our lives. The largest economic sector is oil and gas, in other words, finding things to set on fire. All of our technology is powered by electricity, which is still predominantly generated by setting things on fire. Rockets are powered by fire. Guns are powered by fire. Cars are mostly powered by fire. Even if we switch to renewable, GHG-neutral sources of energy, that is only possible because of millennia of fire. Hell, we only evolved big brains in the first place because we unlocked tons of extra nutrients by cooking with fire.

That's true of any prehistoric invention. Same goes for the wheel, the flint axe, the spear, and the bow + arrow.

All of these were probably also invented independently by multiple people, because whenever one human culture has made first contact with another human culture, they typically have many of these things already.

For example, the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world, have bows and arrows. Also, they tend to use those bows to shoot arrows at everyone who attempts to approach North Sentinel Island, which is why they remain one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world. Other examples include American Indians, some of whom, like the Comanche, were able to use bows effectively enough to consistently defeat Westerners well into the 19th century.

It's also interesting that not all of these inventions are universal--for example, the Inca civilization did not have wheels, because the Andes are too rugged for wheeled transportation to make sense. But they had lots of other things and fairly advanced mathematics, which was important because they had a relatively advanced mercantile culture where goods were traded by means of pack animal.

The invention of the bow predates mans immigration from Africa so isolated tribates having access to it doesnt mean that they invented it independently. And fire is even older.

fire (deliberate control of) was discovered by birds and later copied by humans

Birds? Source?

I'm not sure what the parent was referencing, but at the very least the Polynesian cultures record a story[1] of man learning to make fire from birds. It's possible this oral tradition has its foundations in an actual event from pre-history.

[1] http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/maui/maui13.htm

Some birds are thought to deliberately spread wildfires to flush prey out of grass (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/wildfires-birds-...) - does this have anything to do with early human fire use? No idea...

I would also like to see a source, but judging from all the stories I've read about crows, I wouldn't doubt it.

The invention that impresses me is the differential gear. The National Museum of Scotland, when I lived there, had a cut-away exhibit taken from a car. I played with it, and for the first time, understood how it worked. Two days later, I could not reconstruct it in my mind! Unclear who invented it.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Differential_(mechanical_devic...

Mind you, this may not be a good answer to the question, because there are a couple of claims for the invention.

There's a great old-timey video explaining the differential in a car works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYAw79386WI

Wasn't it invented by the ancient Greeks?




This series was one of the most fascinating reads I've ever enjoyed!

From that series of articles, during Le Roux's court hearing:

> Le Roux admitted that he had created the encryption software E4M but denied that he had developed TrueCrypt, its famous progeny.


> Hafner and his SecurStar colleagues suspected that Le Roux was part of the TrueCrypt collective but couldn’t prove it. Indeed, even today the question of who launched the software remains unanswered. “The origin of TrueCrypt has always been very mysterious,” says Matthew Green, a computer-science professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute and an expert on TrueCrypt who led a security audit of the software in 2014. “It was written by anonymous folks; it could have been Paul Le Roux writing under an assumed name, or it could have been someone completely different.”

The developers of E4M and of VeraCrypt are known; the developers of TrueCrypt are not fully known.

-> VeraCrypt

The maintainers of the VeraCrypt fork are not anonymous [1]; whereas most of the team behind TrueCrypt is.

[1] https://www.idrix.fr/Root/mos/Contact_Us/task,view/contact_i...

The founding fathers published the federalist papers pseudo-anonymously.


Inside the Bitcoin ecosystem Mimblewimble is another important invention with a funny history.

The lead developer of Grin (Rust Mimblewimble implementation) is anonymous.

The origin of OWAS and the CryptoNote protocol is also interesting :) https://moneromonitor.com/episodes/2017-12-05-Episode-016.ht...

Deepfake (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepfake). It has been released in the conveniently same timeframe, when a video was supposed to be „leaked“, allegedly depicting Hillary Clinton in a satanic-ritual abuse video („frazzled rip“). just like the term „fake news“ was coined for the first time in 2016 at the exact same time, the Pizzagate story evolved.

Do we also get to include inventions where the inventor is no longer known - such as the wheel?

i reinvent the wheel every day

We know who invented RC4, but we don't know who told us what it is.

Banksy, TISM are both creators of work and use/used anonymity.

The wheel is an uncredited invention that almost all of humanity uses multiple times a day.

I find the bearing more significant than the wheel: without a good bearing its utility is limited. They have a rich history it seems:


True, but to invent the bearing you need to invent the wheel first

No you don't. Rolling logs as a linear bearing for launching boats, with people carrying the logs to the front from the back as the boat passes over, almost certainly preceded the wheel.

That was also my immediate thought, although I suspect chances are good it was invented multiple times independently.

stairs also fall into this category.

Also, lots of simple tools and weapons: knives (and blades in general), hammers, bows, hand drills. Candles are almost unbelievably useful when you have no electricity, which leads nicely onto the various methods and tools for firestarting.

A knife might fall under a discovery, rather than an invention; a piece of flint that fell and chipped just the right way was likely the first knife.

It might be more interesting to limit answers to historical times.

Why? The original question makes no mention of this, not to mention that it might be cool to think about a bunch of inventions that have been with us for so long that we entirely take them for granted.

Because the spirit of the question about an inventor choosing to remain anonymous, rather than being 'anonymous' because it was 5000 years ago.

Exactly, this how I meant it to be understood. Sorry if my original question wasn't precise enough.

I assume there are a lot of famous technologies accredited to a company, I'd love to know the names of some of the engineers and researchers behind some of the great inventions that we simply credit to XYZ Inc.

why the lucky stiff (okay, his identity came out later)

Many techniques to make binary analysis harder came from anonymous malware authors. In the early days, writing viruses was more of an educational game than infecting people to cause harm. I'm thinking about poly- or metamorphic code that is able to change it's own representation without changing the actual logic.

Also many phrack articles are released under pseudonyms.

The Stuxnet worm.

Does this one really count? It's common knowledge that this was developed by NSA's TAO along with Israel.

EDIT: although I do agree, I remember first reading about Stuxnet when it was first discovered, before evidence of its origin was known, and being absolutely fascinated

https://malicious.life/ Did a great 3 parter on Stuxnet, Flame, Duqu. His who series is fantastic really (esp season 1).

Komodoplatform creator. Known and respected as jl777. He's made some really great advancements in block chain tech.

Mathematics has the recent case of having to reference an anonymous 4chan user for a paper 'A lower bound on the length of the shortest superpattern' - https://oeis.org/A180632/a180632.pdf

There are a lot of ancient inventions like the wheel, the compass, gun powder, swords, and so on. Even more modern stuff like the pound sign is from an anonymous creator.

NwAvguy of ODAC and O2 amp fame...

TLDR: https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/silicon-revolution/nw...

Came here to post this. Objective 2 is a headphone amplifier revered in the DIY community. Although, you probably won't name a piece of great engineering an invention, but what puts it aside is that it was maid freely available under Creative Commons license.

Although it was BY-ND type, which lead to some interesting results, mentioned in a link posted by parent. In my opinion some type of copyleft license would suit better, but CCBYND fixes and underlines NwAvGuy's contribution for years to come.

Maybe Mike Pall? Author of the LuaJIT.

Indeed, Mike Pall has indicated at various points that the name is a pseudonym:

> Heck, I've done the opposite. There's quite a bit of code out there which I haven't published under my real name (for various reasons). Not any Lua stuff, though. Good luck hunting it down. ;-)


> I’ve only published AFLG (auto-fast-loader-generator) under my real name in the German “RUN” magazine.


Of course, like many of the other examples here, unmasking him isn't of much interest to the tabloids since he's not much of a "public figure".

there are so many inventions. like a scientist has created artificial liver tissue

The now-famous Anonymous group? The illuminati? The inventor of coffee?

Writing, and in particular the Arabic numerals.

Unknown (as in, probably known in the past but was lost to history) != anonymous. Otherwise this thread will be filled with ancient/prehistoric inventions.

> and in particular the Arabic numerals.

They got that from the Indians specifically Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.

The wheel


the bible

Quite a few sections of both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament have scholarly consensus on authorship.

"Scholarly consensus" != authorship. Everyone had a scribe actually do the writing in that day anyway is my understanding.

Is there a symbol for the squiggly equals sign?

≈ U+2248

≠ U+2260

What about the bible?

never heard of it

Work published under the name "Shakespeare", if you consider literary work as some sort of creation, (if not invention).

There was also a ton of medieval and renaissance philosophy and occult/alchemical stuff published under pseudonyms. Well known ones include Hermes Trismegistus and Christian Rosencreuntz (sp?). Some of that stuff was proto-scientific natural philosophy and proto-modernism. The scientific, industrial, and modernist revolutions have their roots partly in medieval occultism.

Is that the ghost of Robert Greene typing?



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