This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
He attained geek immortality by coinventing the Sol-20 personal computer in the mid-1970s. He was a key member of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club and a recurring character in Steven Levy’s 1984 book, Hackers. So you’d think that nowadays Bob Marsh might be tripping the light fantastic like fellow personal-computer pioneer Steve Wozniak, or at least kicking back and enjoying retirement.
But Marsh, 63, doesn’t kick back. Fueled by coffee (really good coffee) and surrounded by a cadre of earnest young engineers, he’s hard at work bridging the digital divide. By any means necessary.
“What’s one of the key differences between someone in a village in Africa and someone here in the United States, even a poor person in a poor community?” he asks. Answer: “Google. If you have Internet access and Google, you can find anything.”
As one of three cofounders of the San Francisco–based nonprofit Inveneo, and with funding from partners like Advanced Micro Devices, Cisco, and the United Nations, Marsh trots the globe to establish new computer centers in some of the world’s most isolated and undeveloped locales. In partnership with local organizations, he’s worked lately in Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, and Bangladesh.
“If you’re in a capital city in any third-world country, say, Kinshasa or Kabul, you have all kinds of technology available,” says Marsh. “But it’s pretty hard to get access to technology at some little village in the middle of the jungle.”
On a sunny October day in San Francisco, Marsh is brainstorming with coworkers at Inveneo’s loftlike office at the edge of the city’s downtown district. He’ll be gone for the next four weeks, and he’ll schlep from one side of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the other, starting in Kinshasa and ending in Bukavu, near the border with Rwanda.