Thomas Edison. Alexander Graham Bell. Benjamin Franklin. They’re probably the first people who come to mind when thinking of inventors, and for some they might be the only inventors who come to mind. What about the inventors who have changed the world with more recent innovations? Most Americans probably couldn’t name the people who invented the items they use most often. With that in mind, here are five unheralded inventors whose inventions helped define our modern world.
5. Percy Spencer (Microwave)
In 1945, a chocolate bar melted in Percy Spencer’s pocket while he was working on a magnetron, a vacuum tube that emitted microwaves for radar use. This seemingly unfortunate mess prompted the Raytheon Co. engineer to leave the magnetron and return with popcorn. And when the popcorn popped, Spencer got an egg, which exploded hot yolk all over the place when he put it near the magnetron. So, he decided to trap all of that energy in a metal box so he could cook food extremely fast. His idea worked, he filed a patent, and thus was born the first microwave oven. Consumers were skeptical at first, but after some refinements, Spencer’s invention began catching on in the marketplace in the 1970s.
Spencer himself was a remarkable man. He grew up an orphan, and never finished grammar school, but he learned electronics and engineering on his own working as a radio operator in the U.S. Navy. He also played an invaluable role in World War II, devising a way to improve both the production and quality of magnetrons for the Allied war effort. In addition to Spencer’s famous patent for the microwave — which he termed “Method of Treating Foodstuffs” — he earned numerous other U.S. patents and became a member of the Raytheon Co. board of directors. Yet his greatest legacy can be found in most modern kitchens. It’s hard for many of us to imagine life before the microwave, when meals took half an hour or more to cook, rather than a few minutes. And Spencer himself might be proud to hear that today it’s almost unheard of to make popcorn without a microwave.
4. Martin Cooper (Portable cell phone)
Motorola, Verizon, Alltel … it can be hard to keep all the cell phone companies straight. It should come as no surprise that cell phone companies have been battling for market share since the very first cell phone call was placed. That first portable cell phone call was made April 3, 1973 by Motorola executive Martin Cooper. And who did he call from the streets of New York City? Rival AT&T’s Bell Labs, of course. He had to let them know that Motorola had won the battle to develop a portable phone. Although Cooper headed a team of engineers who developed that first phone, he generally gets the credit as the inventor, with his name on the patent for the “Radio telephone system.”
Consumers weren’t able to purchase their own cell phones for 10 more years, and then a phone cost $3,500, or the equivalent of $7,000 in 2010 — a price that makes the newest iPhones seem cheap. Cooper has since founded ArrayComm, a wireless technology and systems company that has improved the efficiency of cell phone carriers and networks. But Cooper’s legacy is secure, as his portable cell phone has changed the way phone service is viewed today — people call other people, not places.
3. Willis Haviland Carrier (Air conditioner)
It’s a good thing Willis Haviland Carrier didn’t have a smart phone to help him pass the time. While waiting for a train one foggy night, Carrier spent his time mulling over the problem of temperature and humidity control. It doesn’t sound like a riveting thought process, but by the time his train had arrived, Carrier had a plan. And, in 1906 Carrier was granted a patent for the “Apparatus for Treating Air.” After seeing multiple industries benefit from the apparatus, Carrier partnered with six other engineers to form the Carrier Engineering Corp. A few years later, a merger with two other companies formed the Carrier Corp., which in 2009 posted $11.4 billion in sales and had 32,000 employees worldwide.
In addition to bringing cool comfort to people’s lives, Carrier also had a profound influence on the future of the United States, as air conditioning has been a leading factor in the demographic shift of millions of residents moving from the northern states into the hot and humid South. As an aside, although Carrier is officially regarded as the inventor of the air conditioner, the term “air conditioning” was coined by Stuart Cramer, a textile engineer in North Carolina who installed cooling systems in textile mills in the early 20th century.
2. Philo Farnsworth (Television)
While mowing hay on his father’s farm in Idaho, 14-year-old Philo Farnsworth had an idea that would revolutionize the concept of a television that inventors had been struggling to figure out for years. While Farnsworth was balancing farm work and television theory, Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin was working on a similar invention. Farnsworth applied for a patent, but his invention didn’t get much farther than that because of financial difficulties. Viewing him as a competitor, British Gaumont and RCA both bought licenses from Farnsworth to make televisions based on his design. In a bid to stay ahead of the television technology game, RCA hired Zworykin and tried to hire Farnsworth. He declined the offer, but the problems Zworykin had with his television mysteriously improved after a visit to Farnsworth’s farm. RCA kept moving forward, and the company announced the launch of a commercial television at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Ten years later, Farnsworth, disillusioned and battling depression, realized that a lone inventor was no match for businessmen backed by large corporations, so he sold his business before his patents expired. Despite the fact Farnsworth never received the monetary rewards he should have for such a momentous breakthrough, he is widely regarded as the “Father of Television.”
1. Tim Berners-Lee (World Wide Web)
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a much more recognizable name than Tim Berners-Lee. But Berners-Lee is much more notable in the history of the Internet, even though most Internet users have probably never heard his name. After graduating from Oxford University in 1972 with a degree in physics, Berners-Lee went to work as an independent software consultant with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva. In his free time, he began working on a personal project, known as Enquire, which became the concept for the World Wide Web. In 1989, Berners-Lee wrote a proposal demonstrating how computers could exchange information over the Internet using hypertext. With the assistance of a systems engineer, Robert Cailliau, the two men settled on the name “World Wide Web” and went about making their vision a reality. Berners-Lee developed the first web server and first web browser/editor, and on Aug. 6, 1991, Berners-Lee and Cailliau launched the world’s first website, Info.cern.ch, featuring information on the World Wide Web project. By the end of 1991, the first server appeared in the United States, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and two years later, there were some 200 servers in the world. Today, Berners-Lee spends his time promoting the idea of an open and interactive web community. His book, Weaving the Web, describes his visions for the World Wide Web.