American Innovation: 13 Born-in-the-USA inventions

There is a long history of innovation in America's relatively short existence; from lone inventors experimenting in garages to collaborating and competing with international scientists. Many of the following 13 inventions have become fixtures in daily life.

Cotton Gin

A wood engraving from 1865, showing Eli Whitney's 'saw-gin' for cleaning cotton. (Newscom)

On March 14, 1794, Eli Whitney patented his invention, the cotton gin (“gin” being short for engine). The machine succeeded in making the growing of cotton profitable for farmers in the south by speeding up the separation of the cotton bolls (the fluffy part) from the seeds.

The unforeseen side effect of Whitney’s invention was that it made Southerners want to grow more cotton on larger plantations, and thus, bring more African slaves in to pick it. Between 1790 and 1808, when it became illegal to import African slaves, 80,000 slaves were brought to the American South.

Source: National Archives (archives.gov)

Light bulb

Thomas Edison is a hero of American innovation and known for many inventions such as the phonograph, his most famous association is with the electric lamp.

However, the demonstration of a light bulb on December 3, 1879 was the result of much experimentation by many over time.

The first patents for incandescent bulbs had been issued to British scientists in the 1840s. One of whom, Joseph Swan, Edison had prolonged patent fights with until they decided to align in 1883, eventually forming General Electric.

Research into filaments for the electric bulb was through a syndicate known as the Edison Electric Light company, and Edison eventually proposed a new centralized utility and electric distribution network to illuminate homes.
Source: General Electric, Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries by Rodney Carlisle (Wiley, 2004)

Telephone

The telephone patent was filed on February 14, 1876 on the behalf of the Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell, who had been experimenting with devices to help the hearing-impaired in Boston. Like many inventions, several innovators had been working on related technologies. Bell’s application was filed two hours before another inventor, Elisa Gray. The patent was issued on March 7; three days later, Bell called for his assistant Thomas Watson: ‘Mr. Watson, please come here, I want you’ in the now-famous transmission between floors of his home.

Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries by Rodney Carlisle (Wiley, 2004)

Ford Model T

Henry Ford spent his early years in Dearborn, Mich., experimenting with machinery and engines, repeatedly dismantling and rebuilding them. He eventually built his own vehicle designs while working for the Detroit power company. Automobiles, in development in Europe since the 19th century, were rare and only for the extremely wealthy. After conceiving a boxy carriage on bike-like tires, he realized the right balance of economical production, design, and affordability. After his first two companies failed, in 1903, he started the Ford Motor Company. In 1908, the first Model T Ford was produced. It could transport a family, was economical to buy, and famously - black. With its simple design, an assembly line was devised for its 5,000 parts. Within 20 years, millions of ‘Tin Lizzies’ were on their way to transforming mobility.

Source: Michigan Historical Museum

Airplane

Flying machines have fascinated inventors since the Renaissance, and the Wright brothers continued this research in the early 20th century. Orville and Wilbur Wright built a laboratory in North Carolina to test the aerodynamics of wings. Their patent for the heavier-than-air vehicle, the aeroplane, was filed in 1903, and issued May 22, 1906. The Wright Brothers are often considered the pioneers of manned flight, and their biplane design inspired thousands of aviators, as well as transformed travel, transport, and military operations.

Source: Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries by Rodney Carlisle (Wiley, 2004)

Washing machine

For much of human history (and currently in some poor communities today), doing laundry has been a laborious, time-consuming activity that requires the soaking of soiled clothes, dousing them in rivers, and beating them against rocks or other abrasives to dislodge dirt. While many patents were issued for washing machines, the first U.S. patent was given to Nathaniel Briggs of New Hampshire in 1797. The first patent issued for a hand-powered machine with a drum was to an American, James King, in 1851. A rotary washing machine was patented in 1858, and after industrialization of the 19th century, small motors were added. Maytag and Whirpool, companies still synonymous with appliances, began mass production of these by 1910. Today, 84 percent of all US households have a washing machine in their home.

Sources: Maytag, Syracuse University Libraries. Whirlpool, Housing and Urban Development

Television

The combination of radio transmission and motion pictures emerged from the work of a series of German and Russian scientists after the 1913 invention of the photoelectric cell, which boosted electric conductivity of certain metals when exposed to light. In 1923, at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Corporation, Vladimir Zworykin demonstrated a kinescope, which received and displayed images, considered the basis for television. Philo T. Farnsworth, a Utah farm boy long fascinated with electronics, also worked on an electronic camera tube. He successfully convinced friends to provide the seed funding to further the invention. In 1927, he demonstrated the first electronic television. By 1930, Farnsworth's and Zworykin’s paths had crossed and they began to compete for television-related patents, of which Farnsworth held three critical pieces. Farnsworth had a protracted legal battle with RCA, which claimed that Zworykin, who became an RCA engineer, had developed the technology. While Farnsworth did not profit monetarily from his work, he is dubbed "The Father of Television."

Source: MIT, New York Times, Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries by Rodney Carlisle (Wiley, 2004)

Microwave oven

In the 1940s, Percy Spencer, a engineer, paused in front of a magnetron - a device that powers a radar tube - in a Raytheon laboratory. The candy bar in his pocket melted. Intrigued, Spencer reached for another item to replicate the effect - popcorn. Within seconds, the microwave - and microwave popcorn - had been discovered. In 1947, the first oven – a "Radarange" – was demonstrated. Spencer and Raytheon devised the first appliances, which were so enormous, the could only be sold for commercial kitchens. They also cooked very unevenly. In 1967, Raytheon aquired Amana Refrigeration. Shortly after, the Amana Radarange, priced at under $500 and kitchen-sized, began its debut as a daily convenience.

Source: MIT, Raytheon, Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries by Rodney Carlisle (Wiley, 2004)

Industrial robots

In 1954, George Devol applied for a patent for Unimation (Universal Automation), and in 1960, sold his first Unimate programmable robot to General Motors. Similar robots were adopted by other automobile manufacturers, mostly for spot welding and to move items from one place to another.

Stanford University’s Andrew Scheinman invented the 6-axis Stanford Arm, the first robot designed for computer control, in 1969, and later sold the design to Devol’s Unimation. He took the design and refined it into PUMA (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly), which The Christian Science Monitor described in 1982, “...resembles a human arm, [and] handles high speed assembly work...”

Source: Stanford University InfoLab

Lasers

On May 16, 1960, physicist Theodore Maiman, working at Hughes Research Labs in Malibu, Calif., shined a light on a synthetic ruby crystal, making the first functional LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated emission of Radiation). Following a July 7, 1960 announcement to the news media, there was front-page speculation about the possible applications of lasers, including “death rays.”

While Maiman’s findings, published in Nature, had no hints at death rays, last year, Northrup Grumman announced a weapons-grade laser beam.

Lasers now have a variety of everyday applications, including CDs, DVDs, and surgery.

Source: A Century of Nature: 21 discoveries that changed science and the world, 2003 University of Chicago Press

Integrated circuit & handheld calculator

Jack Kilby, a Texas Instruments engineer, is credited with 60 patents. Of those, the integrated circuit - patent filed in 1959 - was probably the most influential. The integrated circuit (IC) allowed transistors to be mass produced, and connected on a single chip. The IC led to the invention of the handheld calculator in 1967, capable of basic computing and mathematical functions, and made use of a slide rule obsolete. Kilby was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics for the integrated circuit.

Source: NobelPrize.org, Texas Instruments

Personal computer

In 1976, the Apple 1 – built by Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – went into production in a spare bedroom of Jobs’s home in Los Altos, Calif. It was the first ready-out-of-the-box computer to hit the market; all previous computers came as kits. The Apple 1 was followed in 1981 by IBM’s 5150 and the Commodore 64.
A buyer would have had to design most of his or her own software for these early home computers. They would also be literally millions of times slower than today’s machines: the Apple 1 came with 4 kilobytes of RAM - random access memory - where a typical personal computer sold today comes with 2-4 gigabytes (that’s 2-4 million kilobytes) of RAM.

Source: Digibarn Computer Museum, The Apple Museum

Social media

Starting with Friendster in 2002 and MySpace in 2003, social networks represented a new way to stay connected. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg took the world of social networking by storm by launching the now-ubiquitous Facebook in his Harvard University dorm room.
Now, according to Facebook, more than 600 million people use the website (about half of whom log on in a given day), and people spend about 700 billion minutes on Facebook per month (that’s just about 1.3 million years per month spent on Facebook globally).