Slide Show: From the LP to the Internet, 17 Inventions Rad Enough to Get Their Creators Inducted into the Valhalla of Innovators
Vaccines, air bags, contact lenses and the technology that made the personal computer revolution possible are just a few of the items whose inventors are being honored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame
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The Magnetic Disk. There's a huge difference between sequential and random-access storage—just ask all the computer science graduate students who grew up in the era of punch cards. In the 1950s, by coating disks with a magnetic material and giving them the ability to spin under a read/write head that did not actually touch them, IBM scientists John Lynott and William Goddard were able to create a drive capable of storing five megabytes of information on 50 24-inch platters. The rest is history—modern hard drives can hold up to 750 gigabytes of information and cost only pennies per megabyte. (The original IBM RAMAC 305 hard drive came in at $10,000 per megabyte.)
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Soft Contact Lenses. In his own kitchen, using little more than a phonograph needle and an erector set, Otto Wichterle of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (now the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) spun the first soft contact lens from a synthetic fiber he had invented. Wichterle survived imprisonment during World War II and the loss of two professorships in two different political purges, but never saw any of the proceeds from his invention. The rights to his process were sold by the Czech government to an American optometrist for $330,000 and were eventually purchased by Bausch & Lomb for $3 million.
Anti-Inflammatory Drugs. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person's own immune system attacks the very body it should be defending, potentially leading to a laundry list of symptoms, most of which are due to inflammation. Increasingly prevalent in the developed world, diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, in which the immune system attacks joint tissue, have severe consequences for the quality of life of millions. That's why the work of Arthur Nobile of the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough, who invented prednisone and prednisolone, two anti-inflammatory drugs, has relieved untold suffering among patients afflicted with these diseases.
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Ethernet. If you're reading this on a computer, then it is a near certainty that the device you're gazing at has an Ethernet port on one of its faces. The networking standard that we now take for granted, which allows high-speed connections to networks in our workplaces, homes and hotel rooms, wasn't always a sure thing. It took Robert Metcalfe, a man who was as much an entrepreneur as an inventor, to invent the Ethernet in the course of his second go at a Harvard Ph.D., then later to found his own company, 3Com Corp., devoted to commercializing the technology and making it the global standard that it is today.
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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Paul Lauterbur, then at the State University of New York at Stony Brook took a relatively obscure technique chemists use to determine the structure of molecules, known as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and turned it into the noninvasive three-dimensional imaging technique whose ability to image soft tissue in great detail has made it nearly ubiquitous for diagnosing everything from cancer to congenital defects. Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham, in England, took magnetic resonance imaging to the next level by inventing the first MRI imaging technique fast enough to capture changes in tissues over time—such as the beating of a heart.
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Computerized Tomography (CT) Scanner. Some inventions require a unique mind—one equipped not merely to understand a thing in detail, but to weld it to a seemingly unrelated field. So it was that Godfrey Hounsfield of EMI Ltd., a true synthesizer, combined an old technology, x-rays, with a new one—the computer. Taking x-rays from multiple angles, he succeeded in using a computer (no small task, given that this was the 1950s) to generate three-dimensional images with an unprecedented level of detail. A designer of one of the first all-transistor computers in the U.K. as well as an expert in radar and electronics, Hounsfield shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for his work on the CT scanner.
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DNA Sequencer. So far, scientists have sequenced the genetic code, or genome, of nearly 200 different organisms—including chimps, humans, chickens, honeybees and a wide array of microorganisms. None of it would have been possible without the work of Leroy Hood, then at Caltech, who invented the automated DNA sequencer that reads the individual letters of a creature's DNA. Hood also had a leading role in the invention of the automated DNA synthesizer as well as the automated protein synthesizer and sequencer. These foundational devices, arguably the bedrock of the modern genomic revolution, have enabled everything from routine genetic testing to the nascent field of personalized medicine.
courtesty Leroy Hood
Vaccines. Maurice Hilleman has saved more lives than any other scientist on Earth. While at Merck he led teams that developed more than three dozen vaccines. Eight of the 14 vaccines routinely recommended for children were created under his watch, including the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (otherwise known as MMR). In addition to this work, which touches nearly all of the roughly four million infants born in the U.S. every year, Hilleman's accomplishments include vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, the first purification of interferon (an antiviral agent), the discovery of adenoviruses, and a characterization of the ongoing evolution of the flu virus—in other words, the linchpin of the global flu control strategy.
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The Long-Playing (LP) Record. Standards come and standards go—the CD dominated for 15 years before giving way to the MP3, whereas the eight-track tape lasted less than a decade. So for a medium invented in the last century to remain the standard for 40 years, and to still be in use today, it must be something special. By slowing down the record from 78 to 33 and one-third revolutions per minute, Peter Carl Goldmark, an engineer at CBS, made it possible to put whole albums on a single platter. But perhaps his greatest innovation was to replace the shellac that records were once made of with vinyl, and in so doing gave aficionados a new nickname for their favorite kind of recorded music.
The First Reliable Cure for High Blood Pressure. It all started with a pit viper. Workers in Brazilian banana plantations were known to collapse after being bitten by this snake, but no one quite knew why. Researchers eventually solved the mystery—it turned out the venom inhibited an enzyme that is key to regulating blood pressure. It took many years of hard work on the part of enzymologist David Cushman and peptide chemist Miguel Ondetti, both of Bristol-Myers Squibb, to harness the power of the difficult-to-synthesize active ingredient in the venom and get it to work in pill form. The result of their work was the first drug suitable for controlling blood pressure.
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Roundup. To hear researchers talk, green chemistry—or the attempt to create eco-friendly products by eco-friendly means—is a recent development. But in 1970 research chemist John Franz of Monsanto discovered the glyphosate class of herbicides. His invention is now known as Roundup, and it bears the distinction of inhibiting an enzyme found in plants but not mammals, birds, fish or insects. Because it's also readily metabolized into even more innocuous substances, it's one of the world's most effective yet nontoxic weed killers.
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Bioluminescence. Most of us have seen fireflies and jellyfish glow, but until NASA biochemist Emmett Chappelle came along, no one had thought about how to exploit the light that organisms naturally give off. Without settling on any one technique, Chappelle used bioluminescence to instantly detect the presence of bacteria in water or urine, give the Viking landers the ability to detect life on the Red Planet by combining Martian soil with chemicals derived from fireflies, and measure via satellite imagery crop growth rates by the characteristics of the light those crops give off.
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The Air Bag. The technology required to create an air bag—sensors, precisely timed electronics, controlled explosive devices—is exactly the sort of thing the military uses to make bombs. So it should be no surprise that Allen Breed of Breed Corp., the inventor of the air bag, was merely translating his experience as a military contractor to the civilian realm when he came up with the first primitive form of vehicular self-awareness; one that would allow a car to know it was in the middle of a crash, and to act. Thanks to his efforts, more than 150 million cars are now equipped with air bags.
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Packet Switching and the Distributed Network (The Internet). The Cold War was on, and the U.S. government needed a way to communicate in the aftermath of a potentially devastating nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. In response, Paul Baran, a researcher at Rand, and Donald Davies, who worked for the military’s Advanced Projects Research Agency invented the Internet. Of course, at the time, that's not what anyone called their innovations, which include digital packet switching and the distributed (versus centralized) network. Distributed networks can't be taken out by a hit on any one hub, because there is no central hub through which all or even most traffic is routed. Packet switching, on the other hand, was the magic that brought these networks to life. Packet switching works by dividing a message into tiny chunks, or packets, and routing them through various paths within a distributed network, making it possible for messages to get to their destinations by the most efficient route possible.
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