A Facebook comment to my recent post about my private conversation with Steve Jobs characterized him as "one of the most innovative human beings to ever walk this earth."

While I appreciate Steve Jobs and his work at Apple, I see him more as somebody who refined and marketed existing technologies rather than an inventor of new ones.

The comment got me wondering, though, who are (or were) the most innovative human beings to walk the earth. Here are my top 10 candidates in reverse order of importance:

10. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907--1966)

Korolev led the Soviet space program, heading the effort to develop rocket technology that led to the first manned space flight but far more importantly, the first artificial satellite.

Why he matters: Our modern communications network as well as GPS emerged directly from Korolev's work.

9. Nikola Tesla (1856--1943)

Tesla created and patented the alternating current induction motor, the hydraulic diode, several generators, electrical tubes, X-ray machines, a wirelessly controlled boat and (reputedly) a death ray.

Why he matters: Alternating current (AC) is the basis for our entire electrical power grid.

8. Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287BCE--c.212 BCE)

Archimedes invented mathematical techniques to measure the area of geometrics shapes and to estimate the density of solids. He invented the screw pump, compound pulleys, and a heat ray that set ships on fire.

Why he matters: His work is the foundation of modern mathematics and the compound pulley is probably the single most important labor-saving device of all time.

7. Badi'al al-Jazar (1136 -1206)

He invented among other things the camshaft, the crankshaft, the chain pump, the suction pump, the reciprocating piston, the flush toilet, accurate clocks and clockwork, as well as mechanical robots that served drinks and played music.

Why he matters: Many of these inventions eventually ended up in the steam engine which started the Industrial Revolution.

6. Thomas Alva Edison (1847--1931)

As well as filing over a thousand U.S. patents, Edison invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the first practical light bulb. His greatest invention, however, is the modern research laboratory that systematizes the innovation process.

Why he matters: Almost all scientific discoveries of importance come out of (well-lit) research laboratories.

5. Marie Curie (1867--1934)

She discovered and defined radioactivity, discovered two elements, invented the portable x-ray machine and first used radioactive isotopes for medical treatment. She is the only person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences (physics and chemistry).

Why she matters: Curie's work laid the foundation for modern chemistry and several branches of medical treatment.

4. John Vincent Atanasoff (1903--1995)

After becoming dissatisfied by analog computers (which had accuracy problems) Atanasoff invented the first electronic digital computer, which used binary math, computer memory and Boolean logic to solve complex equations.

Why he matters: Well, without computers you probably wouldn't be reading this.

3. Albert Einstein (1879- 1955)

Einstein developed the special theory of relativity, which explained the behavior of electromagnetic fields and the general theory of relativity, which explained how relatively applied to the effect of gravitation.

Why he matters: Einstein's work led to the development of the atomic bomb and atomic power plants.

2. Sir Isaac Newton (1642--1726)

Newton formulated the laws of motion and gravity, thereby explaining why planets orbit in ellipses, why there are ocean tides, and how it calculate the trajectory and exact position of any moving object. He also invented the reflecting telescope.

Why he matters: Newton's laws of motion are the basis for our understanding of how and why just about everything in the universe moves the way it does.

1. Johannes Gutenberg (1398 -1468)

Gutenberg only invented one thing--a practical, mechanical, moveable type printer--but that one invention is more than enough to get him on this list.

Why he matters: The printing press spawned the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

Published on: Mar 30, 2015
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