The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum is physically located at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia. Over 500 people are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with enshrinement determined, per the Hall of Fame’s description, by a committee of experts in science, technology, engineering, and patents. Criteria for induction include (1) holding at least one U.S. patent for a groundbreaking invention or significant advancement, (2) progress, where “the invention has been put into widespread use and has improved societal well-being, provided economic benefits to the country and has advanced scientific understanding”, (3) perseverance or determination, and (4) passion. The museum is well worth a visit and is truly inspirational. Because of COVID, the museum can now only be visited online at invent.org, but is still worth the visit.
The enshrined include names one would immediately recognize because the names have become synonymous with everyday products (like Clarence Birdseye for frozen vegetables, Milton Bradley for game board design, John Kellogg for breakfast cereal, or Charles Goodyear for vulcanized rubber). But the list also includes well-known people not known broadly for their inventions, but where the invention turned out to be monumental, affects our daily lives, and often we take the invention for granted. There are dozens of such examples, but in this article, I highlight some of the inventors, hoping it provides due recognition and inspires others.
The 2022 class includes the first-ever living African American woman inductee, Marian Croak. Marian’s contributions are used daily by millions. Marian Croak, who has more than 200 patents in her name, began her career in the Human Factors division of Bell Labs. From the Hall of Fame description:
- She subsequently went on to work on network engineering, where she contemplated the potential of digital telecommunications. Rather than use a traditional phone line for voice communication along with a digital method for internet data, she and her team thought both could be done digitally with the internet. Consequently, they focused on enabling voice traffic that could be both reliable and of high quality. Today, the widespread use of VoIP technology is vital for remote work and conferencing, as well as personal communications.
On a personal note, Marian and I were neighbors and our children were in school together through grade school and high school. Congratulations to Marian!
Several others who worked at the same Bell Labs building are also enshrined in the Hall of Fame and, like Marian Croak’s contributions, their contributions impact daily lives for millions or billions, but the inventions themselves are often taken for granted. Just a few of these examples:
- From invent.org: Arthur Ashkin invented optical trapping, a process that traps small particles, such as atoms and molecules, and macroscopic particles by using laser light. The technique uses radiation pressure force on particles arising from the momentum of the incident light. The process has allowed the study of small particles in many fields. Trapping of living biological particles, such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, was discovered in 1986 using a single beam laser trap called “optical tweezers.” It had a major impact on biological science and led to the study of molecular motors, DNA, and other biological molecules. Other applications continue to be developed.
Arthur’s 1986 invention won him a Nobel Prize in 2018 and he became the then oldest ever recipient of the Prize at the age of 96.
Another Bell Labs person whose invention had great significance years later and impacts our lives to this day is Amos Joel.
- From invent.org: Amos Joel pioneered the system for cell phones of switching communication links from one cell region to another in response to movement while maintaining continuity of service. His invention allows for convenient cell phone usage, making them a part of today’s society.
Still, others created monumental inventions, where the significance became clear much later and more suddenly. One such example is a pair of other 2022 inductees, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, whose invention dates back to about 2005.
- From invent.org: Fundamental research and discoveries by immunologist Drew Weissman and biochemist Katalin Karikó laid a critical piece of the foundation for the messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The mRNA vaccines have been crucial in the fight against the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV 2, a coronavirus discovered in 2019. Nearly 1 billion mRNA vaccine doses have been administered worldwide since December 2020.
Well known people, typically not known for their inventorship but instead better known for their role in the entertainment industry, who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with description from invent.org, include:
- Walt Disney invented the multiplane camera to produce state-of-the-art animation. First used in the 1937 short film The Old Mill, the camera added depth and richness to animation scenes. Disney’s early productions were all short films. Bothered by the flatness of animation, he invented the multiplane camera to film through several layers of drawings. The lens could focus on any one of the layers, creating a more dynamic final product. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated film to use the camera. It was a success, and Disney went on to create many more classics.
- Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan together invented the modern demand regulator used in underwater diving. Their invention allowed for the equipment known as the Aqualung, or self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), enabling safer and deeper dives. Previously, divers were only able to explore the sea using diving bells or helmeted diving suits which were cumbersome and expensive. Divers were also dependent on air hoses connected to a surface source. Cousteau was searching for an underwater breathing apparatus that would allow divers to enjoy unencumbered swimming. He teamed with Gagnan, a Parisian engineer working at Air Liquide who had created a valve for regulating gas flow to gas-generator engines. Combining Gagnan’s engineering expertise with Cousteau’s practical experience, they created a demand valve system that could provide a diver with compressed air on demand and that adjusted to the surrounding pressure.
- Les Paul introduced the world to the solid-body electric guitar, a pioneering instrument that transformed popular music. His innovations led to his first solid-body electric guitar in 1941. Coupled with his pioneering recording techniques, Paul introduced the public to his fast, multi-layered productions that frequently included Paul playing as many as six musical parts simultaneously through the process of overdubbing. He also designed and built his own multi-track tape recorders.
- Actress Hedy Lamarr was best known for her work in Hollywood during its Golden Age, starring in films such as Ziegfeld Girl and Samson and Delilah. But Lamarr also worked with Hollywood composer George Antheil to invent a frequency hopping technique that today is referenced as an important development in the field of wireless communications. Born in Austria, Lamarr had at one time been married to a munitions manufacturer, giving her the foundation for her knowledge of weapons systems, including torpedo control systems. Lamarr and Antheil’s frequency hopping reduced the risk of detection or jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, switching frequencies at split-second intervals in a seemingly random manner that would sound like mere noise to anyone listening. But if both the sender and receiver of the signal hopped frequencies at the same time, the signal was clear.
I encourage you to go to invent.org or the actual museum when it reopens to be inspired.