14 Inventors We Love
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web Jerome Lemelson, holder of more than 600 patentsRobert Plath, inventor of rolling luggage Hinda Miller and Lisa Lindahl, inventors of an early sports braJack Kilby and Robert Noyce, inventors of the computer chip Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin, inventors of the spreadsheet Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic domeMelitta Bentz, inventor of the coffee filter George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris WheelAlfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, inventors of Bubble Wrap
Is there anything we do more than connect? And has anyone influenced how we connect more than Tim Berners-Lee? The creator of the World Wide Web was a teenager when he discovered the power of linking things to other things; he developed hypertext to track complex projects while a consultant at the European nuclear-research facility CERN. By 1990 the Internet had been around for two decades, but with his invention of the first Web pages, server, and browser, Berners-Lee transformed it into the Swiss Army knife to end all Swiss Army knives. He is the father of e-everything, and remains among the Web's guiding spirits as it evolves into 2.0 and beyond.
As one of the most prolific inventors of all time, Jerome Lemelson (on the right, above) devised technology that was used in products ranging from cordless phones to warehouse robots to camcorders. But the inventor is perhaps best known for the fact that he filed and was awarded more than 600 patents--more than any other American except for Thomas Edison. And like Edison, Lemelson wasn't afraid to pursue infringement claims. Though he lost some major lawsuits, Lemelson eventually won an estimated $500 million in various settlements. He died in 1997, and left part of his fortune to a foundation that now presents a half-million dollar prize each year to great inventors for their work.
Navigating an airport became considerably less difficult when Robert Plath, a pilot for Northwest, took a small suitcase, stood it up, and added wheels. Fellow crew members saw the bag and begged him to make luggage for them. TravelPro, the company he subsequently founded, earned a spot on the Inc. 500 in 1992. It also changed the economics of travel, as more passengers opted to fly with only carry-on luggage. Plath sold his business in 1999, and semi-retired. "I had no idea it would take off like it did," he told USA Today in 2003.
In 1977, Hinda Miller was working as a costume designer at a Shakespeare festival in Vermont. She and her friend and colleague, Lisa Lindahl, were avid runners, and they were unhappy with the dearth of jogging gear for women then available on the market. "As costume designers, we got two jockstraps and sewed them together," Miller told Vermont Business magazine. "And we discovered something brilliant." Their invention, an early sports bra, made a fortune. Sara Lee eventually acquired the business, and Miller entered politics. She was elected to the Vermont state senate in 2002.
Jack Kilby’s invention of the microchip at Texas Instruments in 1958 was the precursor for the entire field of modern microelectronics--a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000. Six months after Kilby unveiled his germanium-based microchip, Robert Noyce (pictured above) upped the ante with his silicon version. Noyce went on to found Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. "The reality of what people have done with integrated circuits has gone far beyond what anyone--including myself--imagined possible at the time," Kilby said in his Nobel lecture.
MIT grads Dan Bricklin (right) and Bob Frankston developed the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, in the late 1970s. Though they were among the earliest tech pioneers, they are not as celebrated today as contemporaries such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, in part because their product was always better known than their company, Software Arts. But Bricklin has said he is okay with that. "In many cases, you should set up a company around a product, and the goal should be to get the most out of the product over its life span," he told Inc. in 1989. "Sometimes that may even involve ending the company at a certain point. I see lots of examples [of] products that have a limited life span -- less than 10 years, maybe even less than three years."
In an effort to create affordable low-income housing, this Harvard-dropout invented the geodesic dome, a spherical building model, in 1954. Though the idea never took off, Walt Disney was an admirer, and designed the globe at the Epcot Center theme park in Orlando according to Fuller's designs. Today, the inventor remains a hero to many technologists, and he was recently commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp. "I didn't set out to design geodesic domes," Fuller famously wrote. "I set out to discover the principles [operating in the] Universe. For all I knew, this could have led to a pair of flying slippers."
Anyone who craves a hot cup of coffee in the morning knows the critical role that the coffee filter plays. We have German housewife Melitta Bentz to thank for this innovation. Tired of drinking coffee with grounds mixed in, Bentz began to experiment by putting blotting papers from her children’s workbooks in a perforated brass pot. In 1908, she applied for the patent, launching her career as a businesswoman and vastly improving the taste of coffee for generations after her.
Amusement park enthusiasts owe a debt of gratitude to George Ferris, who in turn owes a debt to Alfred Eiffel. The French engineer's famous tower debuted on the banks of the Seine in 1889. The planners of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair then commissioned Ferris, an engineer from Pittsburgh, to construct something equally grand. He came up with the idea for the Ferris Wheel. The first one stood 265 feet tall and, by one estimate, more than a million people paid to ride it. Unfortunately for Ferris, his exceptional engineering achievement was soured--a legal dispute over ticket revenue dragged on until his death in 1895.
Talk about a pop-culture phenomenon: In 1957, engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes were trying to come up an easy-to-remove type of wallpaper. Instead, they realized their invention was perfect for packing fragile items, and Bubble Wrap was born. A few years later, the partners launched the Sealed Air Corporation in Elmwood Park, New Jersey; as more Americans did their shopping via mail-order catalog and, eventually, over the Internet, the business boomed. Today, the company's revenue exceeds $5 billion a year. Every time you obsessively pop a row of the stuff, you create more demand for them.