Inventions That Have Really Stuck
From global positioning to creating super glue, the amazing accomplishments of 2004’s inductees
RECALLING THE MOST HISTORIC PART OF HIS CAREER , when he led the team that first identified the HIV virus and determined that it caused AIDS, Luc Montagnier says, “It was frustrating to us at the time.” French health officials were withholding badly needed research funds because they didn’t recognize the need to find a fast solution to the puzzling deaths caused by the new disease. After speaking in the past tense for several minutes, Montagnier stops and explains that the work he started in 1983 is not yet finished. “Of course, I am not through with this work,” he says. “I want to find a cure. I think I will. If I just live long enough.”
Montagnier and the American researcher Robert Gallo led medical teams in France and the United States during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, before the disease even had a name, and their work led to the invention of a blood test to detect HIV, the first victory in an escalating battle. For this work, Montagnier and Gallo were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in a ceremony on May 1. They are among 20 inventors entering the Hall this year. It’s the largest single class ever at the Hall of Fame, responsible for breakthroughs ranging from digital communications and molecular sieves to pioneering food preservatives and a really super glue.
Three of this year’s class—Montagnier and the chemists Edith Flanigen and Harry Coover—traveled to Washington, D.C., on February 11 to be present when members of Congress announced the new inductees. If the significance of February 11 escapes you, be advised that it happens to be National Inventors’ Day, chosen because it is Thomas Edison’s birthday. Mark your calendar for next year.
With more than 100 patents, Flanigen is probably best known for inventing several new generations of synthetic zeolites, intricate crystalline materials with exquisitely small pores that function as molecular sieves. They are used in a wide range of industrial processes, including petroleum refining to produce liquid fuels (gasoline or jet fuel). Even the green gemstone in her ring is a synthetic emerald made by a process she co-invented. (See “Hall of Fame Interview,” page 62.)
Coover’s career is equally remarkable; he earned more than 460 patents for work that included the invention of cyanoacrylate adhesives. Coover says that the material was intended for another purpose—World War II gunsights—but lab workers noticed that it was unusually sticky. “When we recognized that it was a really super glue, we went all over the lab, trying to glue together whatever materials we could find.”
In time this laboratory curiosity became a popular consumer product, and Coover became a bit of a celebrity. He appeared on the television game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” which culminated with Coover and the host, Carry Moore, being hoisted into the air beneath two pieces of metal connected by a drop of super glue. Later he starred as himself in a commercial that showed an actor hanging upside down, suspended by glue on his shoes. Although he enjoyed those tastes of fame, Coover says he got more satisfaction from seeing his glue used by Vietnam-era medics. By spraying the glue on open wounds, medics dramatically reduced bleeding, improving wounded soldiers’ chances of surviving long enough to reach hospital facilities.
Three other living inventors were announced. Ray Dolby is best known for his noise-reduction technology, which decreased the “hiss” in analogue-tape sound recording and reproduction. Bradford Parkinson, along with the late Ivan Getting (1912-2003), led the effort to build the Global Positioning System (GPS), which relies on a network of satellites to provide extremely precise navigational information to military and civilian users. Charles Kelman invented a dramatically improved method for removing cataracts. Following his pioneering work in cryo-retinal and cryo-cataract surgery, he invented a hollow, miniaturized ultrasonic probe with suction and used it to remove cataracts through a small incision. His phacoemulsification technique reduced a 10-day hospital stay to an outpatient procedure.
Deceased inventors joining the Hall of Fame include Frederick Banting (1891-1941), Charles Best (1899-1978), and James Collip (1892-1965), who created a worldwide sensation in the early 1920s when they determined that a shortage of insulin caused the then fatal disease diabetes and subsequently developed a process to isolate and purify insulin. Although it’s not a cure, injected insulin remains the most effective treatment for diabetes.
Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) is recognized as the inventor behind the differential analyzer, a mechanical computer made in 1931 to solve extremely complicated differential equations. Although he earned many patents, Bush’s greatest influence probably involved his leadership during and after World War II, when he created the governmental-scientific-industrial alliances that oversee much of American research today. Among the organizations he helped create is the National Science Foundation. His far-reaching 1945 essay “As We May Think” predicted such innovations as hypertext, the Internet, and the notion of computers as information appliances.
Wallace Coulter (1913-98) started an industry with his invention. What he called the Coulter Principle provided a fast, automated way to count blood cells. His blood counter did a job formerly entrusted only to trained lab technicians and led to a series of increasingly advanced automatic blood analyzers. The company he cofounded with his brother Joseph, the Coulter Corporation, continues today as Beckman Coulter, Inc.
John H. Gibbon, Jr. (1903-73), made open-heart surgery possible with his invention of the heart-lung machine. He got the idea for the machine in 1931 after the death of a patient, and he had made enough progress by 1946 to persuade IBM’s chairman, Thomas Watson, to back his project, which produced the first successful open-heart operation on a human in 1953. Gibbon’s innovation permitted surgeries formerly considered too dangerous to attempt. Today’s improved versions let doctors perform bypass surgery and heart transplants.
Lloyd Hall (1894-1971) dramatically improved the safety and quality of commercially processed food. The holder of more than 100 patents, Hall invented food preservatives, bakery products, seasonings, antioxidants, and emulsifiers, as well as processes for sterilizing foodstuffs, spices, and pharmaceuticals. He made important contributions to the military in World War I and World War II.
Elias Howe (1819-67) invented the first successful sewing machine. While watching his wife sew, Howe realized that no machine would be able to duplicate the intricate motions of the human hand. Instead, he created a completely new approach, the now familiar lock stitch. It led to the modern garment industry. Howe had little luck persuading people to use his machine until his competitor Isaac Singer entered the market with a machine incorporating his innovations.
Claude Shannon (1916-2001) invented the fundamentals of digital technology. Starting with the idea that information could be conveyed mathematically with “bits” of digital signals, he outlined the mathematical processes used by modern telephones, computers, CD players, and other digital devices. Along with Bernard Oliver (1916-95), he patented pulsecode modulation, which translated analogue information into a digital language that can be handled by machines.
Norbert Rillieux (1806-94) invented a revolutionary new method for producing sugar. In the process, he eliminated an especially difficult and dangerous job. After seeing slaves make sugar by ladling boiling cane juice from one cauldron to another, he created what he called a “vacuum pan,” which allowed the process to happen at lower temperatures and pressures. It dramatically improved production and also produced refined white sugar. When travel restrictions on free black men increased in the years prior to the Civil War, Rillieux moved to France and continued his career there.
John Roebling (1806-69) is the genius behind the Brooklyn Bridge. He invented a machine to mass-produce steel-wire rope, the essential element for creating suspension bridges capable of spanning long distances. He oversaw the construction of several bridges but died before he could build his masterpiece. His son Washington Roebling took control of the project and finished the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.