The past two centuries have produced some of the most incredible inventions ever developed in human history. Many significant ones came to life in America. From vaccines and medicines to electronic devices and deep space exploration, many American inventions play a crucial role in our everyday lives.
The first U.S. patent was issued to an American inventor Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for improving the production of Potash and Pearlash using a new process. The patent was signed by President George Washington. Since then, more than 10 million patents have been issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
On the list of recipients, you will find some of the world’s most renowned scientists and researchers. In this overview article, we have mentioned all famous American inventors whose new ideas and contributions have shaped/changed human lives.
13. Willis Carrier
Major invention: Modern air conditioning
Awards: ASME Medal (1934) and Frank P. Brown Medal (1941)
Genius can strike anytime. For Willis Carrier, it was in 1902 when he realized that he could make air dry by passing it through the water to create fog. This way, he could control the amounts of moisture in the air.
Within a year, he invented the machine to control humidity. It was the first electrical air conditioning unit. After a few years of improvement and field testing, he got the U.S. Patent for Apparatus for Treating Air. At the annual ASME meeting (1911), he presented one of the most important papers ever written on air conditioning: Rational Psychrometric Formulae.
Carrier soon recognized the importance of air conditioning. In 1915, he founded Carrier Corporation, an independent company for manufacturing and distributing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Willis Carrier is known as the Father of Air Conditioning because his invention gave rise to several industries that power the nation’s economy. Manufacturing of various things ranging from wartime supplies to baked goods was made possible by air conditioning. Today, precise control of temperature and humidity is used in transatlantic flight, shopping malls, offices, and even server rooms that power the Internet.
12. Samuel Colt
Portrait of Samuel Colt | Wikimedia
Major invention: Gun that fired multiple times without reloading
Awards: Silver Telford Medal (1852)
In 1830, Samuel Colt became fascinated by the working principle of the ship’s wheel. Using that concept, he carved out a wooden prototype that would lead to his invention of a revolver with a six-barrel cylinder.
In 1836, he was granted a U.S. patent for the Revolving Gun. He manufactured the first commercial repeating firearm named Colt Paterson. This revolver employed a revolving cylinder with multiple chambers aligned with one stationary barrel.
Colt’s revolver saw a tremendous boost in sales during the Texas Revolution and the Mexican American War. His invention played a significant role in the U.S. Army’s success and resulted in the westward expansion of American territory.
In 1853, he incorporated Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company, which made the mass production of revolvers commercially feasible. He was the first to use interchangeable parts in guns.
Furthermore, his innovative way of using arts, corporate gifts, and celebrity endorsement to promote his products made him a pioneer of mass marketing and advertisement. By 1856, he was among the wealthiest people in America.
11. George Washington Carver
Major invention: Hundreds of products from peanut and sweet potato crops
Awards: Spingarn Medal (1923), Roosevelt Medal (1939)
Born enslaved, George Washington Carver went on to become the most prominent black inventor of the early 20th century. Most of his work was dedicated to increasing the quality of life of poor farmers.
Carver came up with different methods for improving soils depleted by recurrent planting of cotton. His inventions include over 300 products from peanut crops (medicinal oils, cosmetics, plastics, dyes), and more than 100 products from sweet potatoes (synthetic rubber, vinegar, flour, molasses, stamp glue), as well as a type of gasoline.
Carver also promoted environmentalism and became popular for his contributions to the agricultural field. He obtained only three patents for all of his inventions. He believed that
It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.
10. Charles Goodyear
Major invention: Chemical process for manufacturing moldable, waterproof rubber.
Charles Goodyear was a self-taught chemist who made possible the commercial use of rubber. He made his first breakthrough in 1834 when he discovered that nitric acid could make rubber surface dry, smooth, and non-sticky.
His next breakthrough came when he tried mixing sulfur with the rubber, which made the substance less sticky and less likely to change in different temperature conditions.
However, it wasn’t until 1841 that he discovered the process of vulcanizing rubber. He found that rubber could be made melt-proof and more reliable by uniformly heating sulfur- and lead-fortified rubber at a relatively low temperature. In 1844, he was granted a U.S. patent for this discovery.
Goodyear licensed the patent to manufactures and showcased it at several exhibitions. Vulcanized rubber could be used to make waterproof clothing, hats, rafts, balls, shoes, and one day, it would be a crucial component in floors, roofs, tires, transmission belts, seals, and shock absorbers.
Nearly four decades after his death, another American innovator Frank Seiberling named his own company Goodyear Tire and Rubber in honor of the inventor.
9. Percy Lavon Julian
The 3rd African-American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry
Major Inventions: Synthesis of physostigmine (a drug used to treat glaucoma) and cortisone (used as a pain reliever for patients with arthritis)
Award: Spingarn Medal (1947)
Born in 1899, Percy Lavon Julian was an African American chemist who pioneered the chemical synthesis of several important drugs, including steroids, cortisone, and birth control pills.
In 1935, Julian successfully synthesized physostigmine from the calabar bean to develop a drug treatment for glaucoma. Despite his incredible achievement, he didn’t get a professorship at DePauw University because of his race. He applied at various chemical companies but was repeatedly rejected for racial reasons.
DuPont, an American chemical company, refused to hire Julian, in spite of his excellent qualifications. The company apologized that it was “unaware he was a Negro”.
Eventually, he got selected as the lab director at Glidden Company. While working there, he developed Aer-O-Foam that put out oil and gas fires using soy protein. The U.S. Navy extensively used this product in World War II.
He continued his research work and developed a method to extract sterols from soybean oil. He also synthesized the hormones testosterone and progesterone, as well as cortisone, for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
In 1954, he established Julian Laboratories and worked there for seven years. After selling it for a hefty amount, he started a nonprofit organization, Julian Research Institute, where he worked for the rest of his life.
8. Jonas Salk
Major Invention: Polio vaccine
Award: Lasker Award (1956)
Jonas Salk was one of the leading medical researchers and virologists of the 20th century who created the first safe and effective vaccine for polio. In 1947, he joined the University of Pittsburgh as head of the Virus Research Lab, where he began working on poliomyelitis.
Within four years, he discovered that there were three different types of polioviruses and developed a “killed virus” vaccine. The vaccine used lab-grown and destroyed polioviruses.
Clinical trials of the vaccine began in 1952 and expanded over the next two years. About 1.8 million children took part in the second phase trial– one of the biggest clinical trials in medical history.
In 1952, there were over 57,000 cases in the U.S. When the vaccine succeeded in all trials and released for general use in 1955, Salk became a national hero. He decided not to patent or seek any profit from the vaccine in order to maximize its worldwide distribution.
Within ten years, the cases dropped to less than a thousand. Nearly 2.5 decades later, the domestic transmission of poliomyelitis had been fully eradicated in the U.S.
7. Orville and Wilbur Wright
Orville (left) and Wilbur Wright (right)
Major invention: Motor-operated airplane
Wilbur and Orville Wright (famously known as Wright brothers) were pioneers of aviation. They used to follow the research of German aviator Otto Lilienthal (the first person to make successful flights with gliders) while working on various mechanical projects.
In 1896, the brothers began their own flight experiments. They came up with a concept called “wing warping,” which emulates the way birds fly. After numerous testing and improvements, they developed a promising airplane, Wright Flyer.
In December 1903, they flew this plane about four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, making it the world’s first controlled, sustained flight of a heavier-than-air powered aircraft. They flew it four times; the last (longest) flight was 852 feet covered in 59 seconds.
Within two years, they surpassed their own milestone by developing and flying the first fully practical fixed-wing airplane, Flyer III. It flew for 25 miles and obtained a maximum speed of 35 mph — a significant performance gain over Flyer I and Flyer II.
They also created a three-axis control system that allowed the pilot to steer the airplane effectively while maintaining its equilibrium. Their ideas led to the development of new, advanced aircraft for globalization and spaceflight — this includes putting humans on the moon in 1969.
6. Robert Fulton
Major Invention: Commercial Steamboat
Robert Fulton was an inventor and engineer who brought steamboating from experimental phases to commercial success. At the age of 27, he became acquainted with new inventions for propelling boats. His experiments led him to figure out that multiple revolving paddles at the stem would be extremely effective.
In 1797, Fulton designed the first practical submarine named Nautilus. He tested it in many different conditions. Nautilus’ hand-cranked screw propeller enabled it to move underwater and remain at a depth of 25 feet for an hour.
Fulton’s next idea was to develop a steam-engine powered boat. To get the funding of this project, he partnered with New York businessman Robert Livingston. After several mistakes, Fulton successfully tested out an efficient design of steamboat in England.
In 1807, he brought his technology to the United States, where the first commercial steamboat made a roundtrip from New York City to Albany, covering 300 miles in 62 hours. The success of Fulton’s steamboats completely changed the river traffic and trade on large American rivers during the 19th century.
5. John Vincent Atanasoff
Major invention: First electronic digital computer
Awards: U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award (1945), Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame (1978), IEEE Electrical Engineering Milestone (1990)
In the early 1930s, John Vincent Atanasoff started searching for quick and efficient computation methods. At Iowa State College, he extensively studied IBM tabulators and Monroe calculators, and how these machines were used in scientific problems.
In 1936, Atanasoff came up with an analog calculator that could analyze surface geometry. He reached a point where mechanical gears couldn’t be pushed further to provide more accuracy. Thus, he shifted to digital solutions.
With his graduate student Clifford Berry, he created a digital machine prototype named Atanasoff–Berry Computer. It could solve differential equations via binary arithmetic. It was the first automatic electronic digital computer that included regenerative capacitor memory, parallel processing, and separate memory and computing functions.
Furthermore, this was the first machine to implement three key concepts that are still part of all modern computers:
- Use binary digits (‘0’ and ‘1’) to represent all data.
- Perform calculation with electronic equipment instead of using wheels or mechanical switches.
- Keep memory unit and computation resources separate.
4. George Westinghouse
George Westinghouse in 1906
Major invention: Railway airbrake
Awards: John Fritz Medal (1906), IEEE Edison Medal (1911)
George Westinghouse was one of the most dedicated innovators and businessmen of the industrial revolution era. He got his first patent at the age of 19 for a rotary steam engine. Although the engine proved unfeasible, he later used the same principle to build a water meter.
In 1869, he invented a compressed-air brake system to replace the conventional manual braking system in trains. He established the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, the first of over 60 companies he would build to market useful inventions. In 1893, the air brakes were made mandatory on all trains in America.
Westinghouse had more than 300 patents, and many of them were related to railroad travel. The rotary steam engine, for example, delivered power very smoothly and had effective cooling. The Farm Engine provided power to agricultural machinery and helped American farms transition from horses to machines.
In 1883, Westinghouse used the concept of air brakes to build safe piping of natural gas. And by 1885, he was granted 38 patents for piping instruments.
He also acquired patents of Nikola Tesla and hired him to refine the alternating-current motor for use in Westinghouse’s new power system. He put all his resources into developing and marketing alternating current for electric power distribution. In 1886, he founded Westinghouse Electric to compete with Thomas Edison’s direct current system.
3. Granville Woods
Major Inventions: Multiplex railway telegraph, enhanced air-brake system
Granville Woods was an electrical and mechanical engineer who held more than 50 U.S. patents. Most of his innovations were related to streetcars, trains, and telephones.
Woods established a company to manufacture and sell electrical instruments. He received his first patent in 1884 for an improved steam boiler furnace. One year later, he patented an electrical device (named telegraphony) that combined the features of a telephone and a telegraph. Wood sold this patent to Alexander Graham Bell and received enough money to conduct his own research for several years.
Perhaps his most important invention was the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph that allowed people to send messages between train stations and moving trains.
Thomas Edison challenged the patent for the same device in court. Woods defeated Edison’s lawsuit and turned down the offer to work with him. Thereafter, he was often called “Black Edison.”
Woods’s work made the U.S. public transportation system safer and better. Between 1902 and 1905, he was granted multiple patents for an enhanced airbrake system.
2. Nikola Tesla
Major inventions: Alternating current, Tesla coil
Awards: Elliott Cresson Medal (1894), IEEE Edison Medal (1916), John Scott Medal (1934), Sofia, Bulgaria (1939)
Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived. Throughout his career, he discovered, designed, and developed numerous ideas, a few of which were officially patented by other inventors, such as the induction motor and dynamos.
Tesla is best known for inventing the modern alternating current (A.C.) electricity supply system, which rapidly became the preeminent power system of the 20th century and has remained the global standard ever since. In 1895, he designed the first A.C. hydroelectric power plants in Niagara Falls, New York.
He also conducted various experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, early X-ray imaging, electrical discharge tubes, and demonstrated the first wireless-controlled boat.
In 1891, he invented an electrical resonant transformer circuit known as the Tesla coil. He used it to perform experiments in high-frequency alternating current, electrical lightning, and the transmission of electrical energy without wires.
In 1900, he developed terrestrial stationary waves, proving that Earth could be utilized as a conductor. To demonstrate it, he lit 200 lamps from a distance of 25 miles without wires. Tesla claimed that the system would enable the wireless transmission of electricity on a global scale.
1. Thomas Edison
Major inventions: Phonograph, carbon telephone transmitter, D.C. Electric power distribution
Awards: Matteucci Medal (1887), John Fritz Medal (1908), Franklin Medal (1915), Navy Distinguished Service Medal (1920)
Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors of all time. He held 1,093 patents and worked with many ingenious minds whose creations helped shape modern history.
At the age of 22, Edison developed the Universal Stock Printer, an improved stock ticker that synchronized multiple transactions of stock tickers. By 1870, he had acquired a reputation as a first-rate inventor. He established a small lab and manufacturing facility in New Jersey and employed several engineers.
Edison developed tons of devices in various fields: the most notable ones are the phonograph, motion picture camera, carbon telephone transmitter, an early version of an electric light bulb, and D.C. electric power distribution. All of them have had a significant impact on the modern industrialized world.
During the first World War, the U.S. government asked him to head the Naval Advisory Board, a U.S. Navy organization built for examining machinery and facilities for military use. Edison supervised many projects, including gun-location techniques and submarine detectors. However, he never invented/designed weapons to kill due to his moral indignation toward violence.
While Edison was an uninhibited egotist, his career was more of an impressive rags-to-riches story that made him a famous innovator and businessman in America.
Benjamin Franklin: made several contributions to science, especially in the understanding of electricity, and is known for the wisdom and elegance of his writing. He invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, a metal-lined fireplace named Franklin stove, glass harmonica, and the flexible urinary catheter.
Alexander Graham Bell: invented the first practical telephone in 1876. However, he considered his creation an intrusion on his scientific work and refused to have a telephone in his study. He also did groundbreaking work in aeronautics, hydrofoils, and optical telecommunications.
Samuel Morse: created the electric telegraph and revolutionized the way people communicated. Along with another inventor Alfred Vail, he developed the system of dots and dashes (called Morse code) for transmitting signals. It has been in use for more than 16 decades — longer than any other electrical coding system.