12 People Who Engineered Change Without a College Degree

It’s the exception and not the rule, but a few people have achieved monumental technological success without ever earning a college degree.
  • For most, a college degree is a way to help open doors. For a precious few, however, no help is needed.

    To be sure, they are a small group – people who invented and envisioned their way to monumental success, ignoring naysayers along the way. In most cases, they simply replaced the degree with clear foresight, a powerful belief in themselves, a willingness to launch their own companies, and a little bit of brilliance.

    What follows is a peek at the few. From Edison to Ellison and Gates to Zuckerberg, here are the technologists whose knowledge and determination led them to success, despite their lack of a college pedigree.  



  • The co-founder of Apple and the force behind the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Steve Jobs attended Reed College, an academically-rigorous liberal arts college with a heavy emphasis on social sciences and literature. Shortly after enrolling in 1972, however, he dropped out and took a job as a technician at Atari.

    In 1974, he decided to travel through India, seeking enlightenment and studying Zen Buddhism. He later returned to Atari, where he designed circuit boards, before ultimately co-founding Apple with Steve Wozniak in 1976.

    Together, he and Wozniak found success with the Apple I and II, and later with the Apple Macintosh. His unusual background, however, was apparently not an obstacle to be overcome, but rather, an advantage for him. Silicon Valley observers said the company’s success was directly attributable to its philosophical underpinnings.

    “In a dry field filled with dry personalities limited by the rational and binary worlds they inhabit, Apple’s engineering team had passion,” noted Scott MacNealy of Sun Microsystems. “They always believed that what they were doing was important and, most of all, fun. Working at Apple was never just a job; it was also a crusade, a mission, to bring better computer power to people. At its roots, that attitude came from Steve Jobs.”

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By Matthew Yohe)

  • Legendary industrialist Howard Hughes is often said to have graduated from Cal Tech, but the truth is that the California school has no record of his having attended classes there. He did enroll at Rice University in Texas in 1924, but dropped out prematurely due the death of his father.

    Still, Hughes is said to have been a first-rate engineer in practice. Indeed, many of the control surfaces on today’s airplanes trace their lineage back to actuators designed by Hughes for his “Spruce Goose.”

    He formed the Hughes Aircraft Co. in 1932, set multiple air speed records as a pilot, and was worth $1.5 billion at the time of his death in 1976 – all without the benefit of a formal engineering education.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By Acme Newspictures)

  • Arguably Harvard’s most famous dropout, Bill Gates was already an accomplished software programmer when he started as a freshman at the Massachusetts campus in 1973. His passion for software actually began before high school, at the Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington, where he was programming in BASIC by age 13.

    While at Lakeside, he also learned to program in Fortran, COBOL, and machine language, before starting his own firm, Traf-O-Data. He took graduate-level computer science classes at Harvard, but left to co-found Microsoft Corp. in 1975 at age 20.

    Gates reportedly told his parents that his departure from Harvard might only be temporary, saying, “if things hadn’t worked out, I could always go back to school. I was officially on a leave of absence.”

    (Image source: Wikipedia/ By DFID - UK Department for International Development)

  • Just like his fellow Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Paul Allen was a college dropout.

    Like Gates, he was also a star student (a perfect score on the SAT) who honed his programming skills at the Lakeside School in Seattle. Unlike Gates, however, he went on to study at Washington State University before leaving in his second year to work as a programmer at Honeywell in Boston.

    Later, he convinced Gates to drop out of Harvard so the two could start Microsoft. According to Wikipedia, Allen is believed to be the 46th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $20.7 billion.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Miles Harris)

  • Even for his time, Thomas Edison had little formal education. His schooling didn’t start until age eight, and then only lasted a few months.

    Edison said that he learned most of his reading, writing, and math at home from his mother. Still, he became known as one of America’s most prolific inventors, amassing 1,093 U.S. patents and changing the world with such devices as the phonograph, fluoroscope, stock ticker, motion picture camera, mechanical vote recorder, and long-lasting incandescent electric light bulb. He is also credited with patenting a system of electrical power distribution for homes, businesses, and factories.

    Although he was a voracious reader, Edison attributed his technological success mostly to his work habits and relentless determination. “To invent,” he said, “you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

    (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer Corp., seemed destined for a career in the computer industry long before he dropped out of the University of Texas. He purchased his first calculator at age seven, applied to take a high school equivalency exam at age eight, and performed his first computer teardown at age 15.

    Still, he attended college as a freshman pre-med student while running a business selling computer upgrades from his dorm room. He ultimately scuttled his medical ambitions, however, starting his own company, PC’s Limited (later to be renamed Dell Computer Corp.), at age 19 in 1984.

    Early on, Dell said the company’s manufacturing staff “consisted of three guys with screwdrivers sitting at six-foot tables,” but that quickly changed. At 24, Dell was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine. At 27, he became the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500. And by 1996, his fledgling company was reporting Internet sales of approximately $1 million a day.

    In February, 2017, Forbes estimated Michael Dell’s net worth to be $20.8 billion.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By mikeandryan)

  • A pioneer of early television technology, Philo T. Farnsworth was a brilliant student who dropped out of Brigham Young University after the death of his father, according to Biography.com.

    Although born in a log cabin, Farnsworth quickly grasped technical concepts, sketching out his revolutionary idea for a television vacuum tube while still in high school, much to the confusion of teachers and fellow students.

    In 1927, he was credited with inventing the first fully functional video camera tube, called the “image dissector.” Ultimately, he was first to develop and demonstrate a working television to the public. Farnsworth commercially produced his product at the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corp. from 1938 to 1951.

    Over his career, he was awarded more than 300 U.S. patents in radio and television technology, but his legal defense of his concepts cost him his fortune, and he died in debt in 1971.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By Harris & Ewing)

  • Credited with inventing the controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible, the Wright Brothers had little formal education.

    Neither attended college, but they gained technical knowledge from their experiences working with printing presses, bicycles, and motors. By doing so, they were able to develop a three-axis controller, which served as the means to steer and maintain the equilibrium of an aircraft.

    To test their concepts, the Wrights used a small homebuilt wind tunnel, enabling them to collect data and design more efficient wings and propellers. They made their first flight of a controlled, powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in December 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

    In 1909, they proved their concepts for the U.S. Army by keeping a two-seat craft with a passenger aloft for an hour, at an average speed of 40 mph. Ultimately, they sold the plane to the Army’s Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps for $30,000.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By Photoprint, copyrighted by Cole & Co. - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, Public Domain)

  • Stanford Ovshinsky managed to amass 400 patents covering subjects ranging from nickel-metal hydride batteries to amorphous silicon semiconductors to hydrogen fuel cells, all without the benefit of a college education. He is best known for his formation of Energy Conversion Devices and his pioneering work in nickel-metal hydride batteries, which have been widely used in hybrid and electric cars, as well as laptop computers, digital cameras, and cell phones.

    His work in amorphous silicon was also groundbreaking, and he coined the term “Ovonics,” now recognized by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for his field of study.

    Ovshinsky won awards for his work from the American Solar Energy Society and the American Chemical Society. He also won honorary doctorates from Kettering University and the University of Michigan, and was named “Hero for the Planet” by TIME Magazine in 1999.

    Amazingly, Ovsinsky attained all that after starting his career as a tool maker and machinist in the rubber industry.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/Photograph by Glenn Triest for Style magazine)

  • Preston Tucker, designer of the infamous 1948 Tucker sedan, worked as a machinist, police officer and car salesman, but was not known to have attended college. Still, he managed to become founder of the Tucker Aviation Corp. and the Tucker Corp.

    His lasting legacy, however, stems from his design of the Tucker 48 – a “car of tomorrow” with innovative safety features and modern styling. It included a rear-end engine with a water-cooled aluminum block, direct drive torque converters at each wheel (instead of a transmission), hydraulically-actuated valves (instead of camshafts), four-wheel independent suspension, fuel injection, padded dashboard, disc brakes, and seat belts.

    Innovative features notwithstanding, the Tucker Corp. ended up in an ugly fraud trial that sunk the company, despite Preston Tucker’s eventual acquittal. Today, the sedan is viewed with a mixture of nostalgia and respect, and many of its ideas have become staples on modern vehicles.

    Tucker’s story has also been elevated to the status of Detroit legend, depicted in the 1988 feature film, Tucker: A Man and His Dream.

    (Imags source: Wikipedia/ By-SA 2.5)

  • Larry Ellison dropped out of his pre-med studies at the University of Illinois in his second year and left the University of Chicago after only one term, but his brief academic experiences eventually led him to the top of the computer industry.

    After exposure to computers in school, Ellison packed up and moved to the Silicon Valley, launching a career in software that led to the formation of the Oracle Corp. in 1979. Oracle, which specializes in database software and technology, has since grown to annual revenues of $37 billion and an employee base of 136,000.

    In retrospect, Ellison says he needed to learn to ignore the expectation of others. “Virtually everyone important in my life – my family, my teachers, my girlfriend – wanted me to be a doctor,” he said at a 2016 USC commencement speech. But success, he said, arrived when he followed his passions. “Deep inside of all of us – all of us – there is a primal desire to do something important with our lives,” he said.

    In August, 2017, Forbes listed Ellison as the seventh richest person in the world with a net worth of $60.6 billion.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/By Oracle Corporate Communications).

  • A Harvard dropout, Mark Zuckerberg was considered a prodigy before he even set foot on campus.

    He began doing BASIC programming in middle school, created an instant messaging system while in high school, and learned to read and write French, Hebrew, Latin, and ancient Greek prior to enrolling in college.

    He co-launched Facebook from his dorm room while at Harvard, eventually dropping out in his sophomore year to focus on his new business.

    “I remember really vividly, you know, having pizza with my friends a day or two after,” he has since recalled. “I opened up the first version of Facebook at the time and thought, ‘You know, someone needs to build a service like this for the world.’ But I just never thought we’d be the ones to help do it. And I think a lot of what it comes down to is we just cared more.”

    In 2017, Zuckerberg’s net worth was said to $71.5 billion. He is ranked by Forbes as the fifth richest person in the world.

    (Imags source: Wikipedia/By Elaine Chan and Priscilla Chan)




Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.



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