Most of these US inventions you probably use every day and probably take them for granted. But once upon a time, in a not so far away past, they did not exist. A genius inventor came up with the idea for each, and then built them.
Here are 9 US inventions which have shaped our modern world.
Like with many other modern inventions, it took a village to make the refrigerators we now know and love.
Until the 20th century people used ice boxes to cool their food. Those were insulated devices. One put a big cube of ice on the top drawer, and food on the bottom drawer. The big cube was changed every day.
In 1748 a famous Scottish physician and educator, William Cullen, had discovered an automated mechanism that could cool a container. And he exhibited it at the University of Glasgow. It was indeed the first time a refrigerator worked, but it was more of a chemical experiment showing how the evaporation of certain fluids could cool a container. Nobody thought what practical uses it could have. Yet, if someone would argue that it was Scottish William Cullen who invented the refrigerator, they would have a point.
A few decades later, a prolific US inventor, Oliver Evans, designed another refrigerator and wrote about it, but he never built the actual device. That would fall to an associate of his, US inventor Jacob Perkins, who is more widely credited for the invention of refrigerators.
Jacob was living in the UK at the time. He took Oliver’s design, modified it, and patented it. Then in 1835, he did what Oliver had failed, to, he had John Hague built the actual machine in London. It was an insulated box which produced ice, was constantly cool, and cooled anything placed inside it.
It would take more inventors to tweak the device until it was commercialized in the 20th century, first for industrial and then for home use.
A new technology called photography was all the rage in the 19th century. And many enthusiasts had been experimenting with it. In about 1878, English-American Eadweard Muybridge was able to take 12 pictures of a racing horse which showed it frozen in different postures.
He then realized that if he saw these ‘frozen’ motion-pictures one after the other, fast enough, he could fool the eye, and the subject photographed looked like if it was really moving.
So he came up with a device, the zoopraxiscope, which used disks to project these motion-pictures onto a wall. Yet, only one of his disks contained his animal photos, in the other discs the figures were hand painted, so it was more like animation.
With these experiments and inventions -along others being made in Europe and in the US- everything was now ripe for the birth of cinema.
And it was US inventor and visionary Thomas Edison who delivered the product in 1891. He and his Scottish employee William Dickinson invented a machine called kinetoscope, which was partly inspired by Eadweard’s invention.
The kinetoscope was a box with a peephole. One spectator at a time would look through the hole and watch a movie; that is, a cellulose film strip which had a sequence of pictures on it, that was shown at high speed against a blinking back light. The movies were short at first, but soon became lengthier. Thomas had some financial success with his invention.
Then, the Lumiere brothers, in France, saw the kinetoscope at a fair, tweaked the design, and set it free from its box. They invented a projector so the movie was not shown inside a box anymore but was projected unto a wall. With that, many people could watch the movie simultaneously.
Since humans have dealt with summers and tropical weather for thousands of years, cooling devices have also existed for thousands of years. But most of them were fans, some of them mechanic.
It was in the 20th century when things picked up in the cooling department. As we have seen, in the century before plenty of people experimented with refrigeration, after they realized that by evaporating certain liquids they could get the temperature to drop. The technology was applied to build refrigerators.
But a physician in Florida, John Gorrie, who attended Yellow Fever patients, used it to cool entire rooms. He built a cooling device which made ice. With it, he hoped to cool the hospital room so his patients’ fever would go down. It was an interesting prototype which worked irregularly, but it was not properly an air-conditioner.
It was in 1902 that 25-year-old Willis Carrier invented the first real air conditioner. The New Yorker was trying to bring down the humidity in the press room of the publishing company he worked for. Humidity was not good for paper, it made it stick together. So Willis applied the refrigeration principles already known to invent a device that cooled the entire place while bringing humidity down.
More than a decade later Willis founded a company (Carrier), which still exists, to sell his product. At first only businesses and the rich could afford his invention, but nowadays 80% of US homes have air conditioning.
Mary Anderson, from Alabama, was not used to snow. So in 1903, when she traveled to New York, she was in for a surprise. Mary was riding a streetcar when she noticed the driver had very poor visibility. The snow covered his windscreen. The man had to stop every few meters and open a side window to look at the road ahead. Even more, that opened window let in a chilly current of air which was unpleasant for all passengers.
Mary noted that the other cars in the street, in those early days of automobiles, were stopping on the side of the road, and the drivers would get down and manually clean their windscreens.
Mary thought there had to be a better way. And within a few months she had invented the windscreen wiper. They were pretty much like the modern ones, but were not automatic. There was a level inside the car which the driver could manually move to get the external rubber wipers to work.
She had her invention built and then patented in November 1903.
A few other inventors (from the US, Poland, Britain…) patented similar devices in those years. But Mary’s wipers were the only ones that actually worked.
Nowadays cars are required by law to have windscreen wipers.
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Many had tried to build flying machines before. Even the 15th century Italian inventor and all-around genius Leonardo da Vinci had designed a few.
And by the 19th century other European inventors had succeeded in flying with gliders, which have wings and use wind currents in order to stay up in the sky.
But no one had yet built a machine that could fly on its own, propelled by an engine. Enter the Wright brothers from Ohio.
They duo payed attention to the experiments that had been done before them, including the use of ‘wind tunnels,’ a contraption that allows to experiment with flying devices while being safely on the ground.
The brainy brothers, Wilbur and Orville, built their own updated wind tunnel and a succession of gliders, which they fine-tuned with each attempt.
Now was the time to add an engine and propellers to their glider so it could fly all on its own. The brothers were not the only ones trying to build an airplane, either. But it was the Wrights that accomplished it first.
While the Europeans were developing powerful engines that turned out to be too heavy to take off, the Wrights cleverly decided to use the minimum horse power needed to actually fly. That meant their engine was smaller and lighter.
Their airplane took off for the first time on December 17, 1903. It flew for 259 m (852 ft) thought the skies of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
By 1905 their airplanes were flying 39.4 km (24.5 miles).
Human aviation had been born.
Who invented the microwave oven is pretty straight-forward. The credit for this all-American invention goes to Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer from Maine.
Percy was employed at Raytheon, a space and defense manufacturer, in 1945.
One day he was working on a radar, which used microwaves, when he realized the chocolate he had in his pocket was heating up and melting. He asked around and others said they had experienced the same. So the team started experimenting. They placed popcorn in front of the radar, it cooked. They placed an egg, it exploded. Intrigued, the team directed the microwaves into a metal box. Inside of it they placed food, and it cooked rapidly.
Soon, Raytheon filed for a patent for a device which cooked foods with microwaves, a type of radiation. They began commercializing the ovens, and since they first ones were big and expensive, they sold them to restaurants.
A decade before, Westinghouse, the home appliance giant, had also successfully experimented with cooking food rapidly, but they had used radio waves -not microwaves-, and their experiments had not come to much.
Nowadays 90% of US household have microwave ovens. And all the frozen-food fans have Percy Spencer to thank.
The internet was born due to the collaboration of various countries, mainly the US, UK, Germany, and France. Scientists from those countries exchanged ideas back and forth for years.
Yet, the first actual network which connected several computers was the ARPANET, funded by the US Department of Defense. Before that, each computer lived in its own isolated world.
On October 29, 1969 two computers, each the size of a house, were connected to the ARPANET and were able to communicate to one another. One was in UCLA, the other in Stanford. Both universities are located in California. The UCLA computer sent the message “Login”, but its Stanford counterpart crashed and only received ‘Lo.’ Nevertheless, that first attempt worked and in the following years the system evolved.
By the 1970’s several countries had their own mini-networks. France had the CYCLADES network which connected all the major computing centers of their country. While Germany had the HMI-NET2. But the computers of one network could not communicate with the computers of another.
American scientists Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn came to the rescue. In the late 1970’s they developed a protocol, which allowed all computers of the world to connect with one another (the TCP/IP protocol, if you want to get technical). And with that, the internet was properly born.
Home video games
Gamers can thank Ralph H. Baer, a German-born US engineer for this invention.
Ralph’s family fled Germany during WWII and landed in the US. By 1966 the engineer was working at Sanders Associates, a defense industry company.
Televisions were becoming more affordable, and Ralph thought they could be used for more than just watching programs like, for example, to play games.
Ralph drafted a proposal and sent it to his superiors at Sanders. They allowed him to create the game console and gave him $2,500 for his pet project. Ralph was in charge of a department which had 500 engineers, so he asked two of them, Bill Rusch and Bill Harrison, to help with the project.
Eventually, the trio came up with a video game console nicknamed the Brown Box. The console had switches, which the gamer would toggle to play different sports -hockey, tennis, ski, volleyball, soccer, handball, ping-pong…-, or solve quizzes or mazes.
Since Sanders Associates was in the military business and did not know how to commercialize the Brown Box, they licensed it to Magnavox in 1971. Magnavox simplified the design, renamed the product Odissey, and started selling it. It came with 13 games and more could be purchased separately. It also came with a gun to shoot objects on the TV’s screen.
It went on to sell 130,000 units the first year. And as they say, the rest is history.
The first computes were huge, weighed tons, and costed hundred of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, they required a group of engineers to make them work so only organizations and universities could afford them. Their pro was, of course, that they could made calculations that took humans hours to solve.
By the 1970’s several people were trying to make smaller computers that could be used at home by the public at large.
US inventor John Blankenbaker was one of them. By 1971 he had built the Kenbak-1. It looked like a switchboard, had a small memory and it did not have a screen or a keyboard. It did come with a booklet of detailed instructions on how it worked, though. But it was far from a commercial success, only 50 units were sold. Nevertheless, it was the first personal computer (PC) ever made, according to the Computer History Museum and to other scholars.
Then there was a breakthrough: someone invented the microprocessor. This tiny thing could perform the same processes, in a reduced space, that huge computers did.
And by 1973 French engineers had created the first microprocessor-based personal computer. They called it Micral N. It looked like the Kenbak, for it too had switches. But it came with some nifty improvements, like having a lot more processing capabilities. A few months after its debut Micral got a floppy disk reader, and in 1974, it got a screen and keyboard.
So the US made the first personal computer while France created the first microprocessor-based one -which is more akin to our modern PCs.