Unknown but incredibly important inventors

by on September 26, 2006 at 7:28 am in Data Source | Permalink

Shane Greenstein asks me for examples of:

…unknown inventors whose work greatly benefited society and who deserve more recognition.  Ask for nominations! 

…And I will start with nominating Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, the inventors of the microchip.  I do not know a school boy who has ever heard of them, but everyone uses their invention.

Comments are, of course, open.  How about Fred Soper?

Cisco September 26, 2006 at 8:24 am

Tim Berners-Lee. I doubt 1% of the people who use the web know about him.

Tyler Cowen September 26, 2006 at 8:46 am

Upon further thought, how about Samuel Bailey, Mountifort Longfield, or Fleeming Jenkin?

SteveSC September 26, 2006 at 9:59 am

Nicola Tesla, father of AC current, the flourescent light bulb, and radio.

And for the really obscure, Samuel Insull. He invented the business model that let to widespread, cheap electric power. Without him, most of us might be still using gas to light our homes and businesses.

William Goodwin September 26, 2006 at 10:13 am

As Hamilton says, the schoolchildren criterion seems absurd, since it’s unlikely that schoolchildren have heard of Cyrus McCormick or Eli Whitney, or perhaps even Samuel Morse. But no reasonable person could say they’re unknown. Similarly, to say that Robert Noyce, who was profiled decades by Tom Wolfe, who is one of Silicon Valley’s most venerated figures, and who started one of the most important companies in American business history, is “unknown” stretches the definition into meaninglessness. I’d say the same about Tesla and Tim Berners-Lee, too.

michael vassar September 26, 2006 at 10:18 am

Norman Borlaug developed hybrid dwarf grains, the basis of a world where food is abundant.
Nicola Tesla has recently developed a cult following, but probably still counts
Florence Nightengale is a strange case. People think of her as a saintly nurse but don’t recognize her importance to the devlopment of scientific, statistically based medicine.

SteveSC September 26, 2006 at 10:29 am

So Mr. Goodwin, who qualifies under YOUR definition of unknown? It is easy to nitpick, but what is unknown anyway? Not taught in schools (admittedly way to inclusive IMHO)? Never been mentioned in a textbook? Not in Wikipedia? Not mentioned in a Google search?

I had never heard of the three Tyler mentioned in these comments, yet all were easily found by Google and two were in Wikipedia. It is hard to be ‘unknown’ in today’s communication age. I would say that, given a general sample of people, an inventor three standard deviations out, i.e., known to less than 2% of the sample, is unknown, and four standard deviations is really obscure.

dan September 26, 2006 at 11:50 am

How about Kary Mullis, who invented PCR. But maybe I only think he’s unknown because that’s not my field. I can’t imagine anyone calling Noyce and Kilby unknown, but that’s probably only because I’m an EE.

DK September 26, 2006 at 11:54 am

I was definitely taught about Samuel Morse and Eli Whitney as a child. Who doesn’t learn about Morse Code and SOS?

Whitney is a really big deal in most junior high US history courses; he is usually blamed for the South’s cotton-slavery economy and sometimes credited with Yankee manufactyring strength.

hamilton September 26, 2006 at 12:40 pm


Exactly! This is my memory of events.

And yet none of the students in my 202 (intro macro) course
remembered ol’ Eli when I brought him up. So I called some family friends
with high schoolers; they had no memory, either.

[I was scared to ask about Mr Morse. It would have hurt my soul.]


anonymous September 26, 2006 at 1:06 pm

Well, I have a problem with the original post. What’s a microchip? Honestly, don’t you mean that they invented the Integrated Circuit? Well, if I were a school child, I would not call the IC “a microchip”, because that’s now too vague. Only Kilby received a nobel prize, as the prize is not given posthumuously, and Noyce had already died by 2000. Brittain, Bardeen and Shockley invented the transistor, which also won a nobel prize.

btw, am I the only person who can’t see the right hand side of the comments screen, as it is hidden by the ads?

Neal Meyer September 26, 2006 at 1:22 pm

In the world of IT and computers, I would recommend nominating Claude Shannon. Shannon’s theories and ideas form the basis for all modern digital computers. Yes Virginia, there once upon a time were analog ones too!

For food and eating, I could suggest Clarence Birdseye, though Birdseye at least left a legacy of having a fairly well known company being named after him.

How about Frank Whittle in aviation? Whittle might be better known in Britain and his own field than in the public imagination.

S September 26, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Antonio Meucci The telephone

Anderson September 26, 2006 at 4:09 pm

“btw, am I the only person who can’t see the right hand side of the comments screen”

If you mean “once you start typing,” no, you’re not.

joan September 26, 2006 at 4:33 pm

I think there is a difference between important inventions and important inventors. Some things are invented because it is the next logical step in the development of the technology, and if X didn’t invent it Y would. The invention is actually the product of a group effort where the “first† is given the credit. These may be important inventions but X is not an important inventor.
Important inventors show new insights that leap over the conventional, either by accident of design, and produce something new. I other words, X hadn’t invented it, it would not exist, or not exist until many years or decades later.

Martin September 26, 2006 at 4:38 pm

James Francis Pantridge, Belfast, the portable defibrillator.

Adrian September 26, 2006 at 4:59 pm

How about Henry Maudslay, who not only invented interchangeable screws and nuts, but a lathe which could cut at a high enough precision to make them possible? According to Witold Rybczynski in _One Good Turn_, which is a history of the screw and the screwdriver, Maudslay invented the very idea of precision machinery as well as the methods for manufacturing it, making possible pretty much every modern machine tool. Also maybe Nicholas Jacques Conté, who invented a method for mixing graphite dust with clay to make pencil leads, making high quality pencils possible even after all the high quality graphite deposits were used up. Henry Petroski wrote an excellent book about this and other related topics: _The Pencil_.

Peter Schaeffer September 26, 2006 at 6:17 pm

Fritz Haber also invented chemical warfare. Apparently, his role as “the father of chemical warfare” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haber) drove his wife to suicide. The Nazi’s persecuted Haber after they came to power even though he was a decorated veteran of World War I. He left Germany and died a broken man in Switzerland.

Peter Schaeffer September 26, 2006 at 6:33 pm

How about Carver Mead? According to Wikipedia (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carver_Mead)
“Carver Mead is a key pioneer of modern microelectronics. His 40-year academic and industry career touches all aspects of microelectronics, from spearheading the development of tools and techniques for modern integrated circuit design, to laying the foundation for fabless semiconductor companies, to catalyzing the electronic design automation field, to training generations of engineers, to founding more than twenty companies, including Actel Corporation, Silicon Compilers, Synaptics, and Sonic Innovations.†
Carver Mead invented the HEMT (High Electron Mobility Transistor) (see http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/mead2.html) and is working on a new generation of digital cameras of late. See http://www.dpreview.com/news/9907/99070901foveon.asp.

DannyNoonan September 26, 2006 at 6:54 pm

How about Thomas Midgley Jr.? He died believing his ideas had greatly improved society TWICE. And they had. But after his death, we learned that BOTH of his contributions had a huge negative effect on the world. And for that, he should be recognized.

Peter Schaeffer September 26, 2006 at 7:49 pm

Midgley invented the first Freon, R12 (dichlorodifluoromethane). It proved to be a very safe, highly effective replacement for the ammonia and sulfur dioxide then in use as refrigerants. The current generation of Freon replacements (such as R134a) are still fluorinated and (in some cases) chlorinated alkanes. In other words, Midgley’s work remains highly relevant to the present and for the foreseeable future. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haloalkane. The same can not be said for his invention of lead additives for gasoline. It should be noted that leaded aviation gasoline helped the US win WWII.

Eddy September 26, 2006 at 8:08 pm

I’ll nominate Chester Carlson, the soft-spoken inventor of the Xerox machine. David Owen’s book, Copies in Seconds” details how Carlson and his invention changed the world.

anonymous September 26, 2006 at 8:39 pm

—We should have a class in “nonstate history” where we skip all the stupid Presidents, generals, and wars and study the inventors and inventions. Knowing the inventors isn’t half as important as knowing what the inventions do and why they’re important, and we don’t get taught about that at all.

Yes, it used to be caled “science class.”

Yes, that’s correct: after I start typing, the right hand side and margin of the comment box disappears under the ads.

Eric H September 26, 2006 at 9:58 pm

Tesla, yes, except that everyone on this forum seems to know of him. Insull no. His “business model” was to have his business be regulated and uh … oh, yeah, be granted a legal monopoly, much the same way Theodore Vail obtained a legal monopoly for AT&T (how big of them). One of the oldest business models in the world, really.

How about Hedy Kiesler Markey, better known as Hedy Lamarr, yes, the actress. Everyone reading this has probably used her invention: the idea of frequency hopping is used in your spread spectrum cell phone (among other things).

The idea of interchangeable parts did not originate with Eli Whitney, nor did he ever perfect it. The idea came from a French General de Gribeauval by way of Honore Blanc through his friend Thomas Jefferson, and by way a Lafayette aid, Major Tousard, who was influential on the founding of West Point and the armories at Springfield and Harper’s Ferry. John H. Hall actually perfected it in the 1820s, long after defense contractor Whitney self-promoted himself into American lore despite having failed to deliver.

Taiichi Ohno – the Just In Time manufacturing system.

Patrick September 27, 2006 at 12:30 am

Nicolo LaSpina. The spectacles (c. 1290). As good a starting point as any for the renaisance.

Think about it. The lifetime productivity of every educated man in Europe (from fine craftsmen to doctors and lawyers) doubled or tripled at once. Instead of being forced to retire to management at the age of 40, they could keep doing fine work until 80.

Daniel J. D'Amico September 27, 2006 at 3:03 am

Walter Shaw invented call conferencing, the red phone in the white house, and almost every flash function on the telephone yet almost no one knows his name as his jewel thief son laments in this maxim article.

Ed D. September 27, 2006 at 6:55 am

Charles Drew – Invented/Discovered the method for separating and storing Blood Plasma – leading to blood banks and the saving of untold numbers of lives.

The bigger saver of lives though would be whoever discovered the washing of hands.

y81 September 27, 2006 at 8:19 am

Tsai Lun (also spelled Cai Lun), who (maybe) invented paper.

triticale September 27, 2006 at 10:47 pm

If Kary Mullis is on the list, then how about Albert Hoffmann, who invented the LSD which gave him his inspiration?

Ryan Cousineau September 28, 2006 at 2:27 am

Ed D.: I think one could fairly credit Ignaz Semmelweis for creating medicinal hand-washing.

Alan K. Henderson: the Model T had a 2-speed clutchless transmission, and was probably not the first. It was superseded by manual 3- and 4-speed transmissions in cars before automatics became widespread. I’d say the automatic transmission is about the least important invention listed here.

From a pure “most lives affected the most” point of view, you could hardly go wrong by nominating any of the big agricultural researchers. The Green Revolution really mattered.

Alan K. Henderson September 29, 2006 at 12:28 am

I consider the automatic transmission a safety feature. In tense driving situations, distractions can cause accidents – and for many people having to concentrate on three buttons (clutch, stick shift, accelerator) just to change speed is a huge distraction.

Here’s another inventor who increased agricultural output: Joseph F. Glidden, who in 1874 developed the first practical barbed wire, making large-scale ranching possible.

On the information technology front – in 1867 Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule built the first practical typewriter. Aside from the business applications, the typewriter (in conjunction with carbon paper, inventor unknown) allowed the samizdat, the clandestine dissident press of then-Communist Europe, to achieve relatively large-scale printing with technology that could be easily hidden from the authorities.

Anonymous October 14, 2008 at 2:06 am

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: