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American Innovators: Extraordinary Changes to Everyday Life

07 October 2011

Entrepreneur Steve Jobs, who died October 5, continued a long-standing American tradition of innovation. Find out more about some of the ground-breaking inventors who preceded him.

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ALT: Steve Jobs holding up an iPhone, with Apple logo in background (AP Images)

On January 9, 2007, Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs holds up an Apple iPhone at the MacWorld Conference in San Francisco. Since that time, “smart” phones have been eagerly embraced by consumers around the world.

Jobs, who died October 5, 2011, continued a long tradition of U.S. innovation, following in the footsteps of American inventors who have changed the everyday lives of people on every continent.

AP Images
ALT: Benjamin Franklin (AP Images)

Founding Father and American original Benjamin Franklin was a writer, philosopher, diplomat, scientist and inventor. He’s credited with a number of technical breakthroughs, including the Pennsylvania Fireplace (later known as the Franklin stove), which produced more heat with less fuel than a conventional fireplace.

In 1784, tired of switching between the glasses he needed to see distant objects and those he required for reading, Franklin invented hybrid lenses he called bifocals. Millions now benefit every day from Franklin’s innovation.

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ALT: Guangzhou International Financial Center (AP Images)

Many technical breakthroughs enabled construction of the modern high-rise building, but no one would want to live or work in one without a device invented by the son of a Vermont farmer.

Elisha Otis invented the first safe elevator by fitting toothed wooden guide rails into opposite sides of the elevator shaft and fitting a spring to the top of the car through which the hoisting cables ran. If the cables broke, the release of tension threw the spring mechanism outward into the notches and prevented the car from falling.

The Guangzhou International Financial Center shown here is served by Otis elevators.

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ALT: Woman holding jeans with portrait on right (AP Images)

The manager of the Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, Germany, presents a pair of jeans and a picture of innovative marketer Levi Strauss, a German immigrant to the United States.

Strauss and Nevada tailor Jacob Davis invented blue jeans in 1873. Strauss then marketed the sturdy working garment, with its trademark riveted construction, to the people of the American West from his store in San Francisco.

Eventually, blue jeans would become the most frequently worn pair of trousers in the world.

AP Images
ALT: Alexander Graham Bell (AP Images)

Scotland native Alexander Graham Bell settled in Boston, where he focused his considerable ingenuity on improving life for the hearing impaired. Bell’s mother and his wife were both deaf.

He developed his “phonautograph” to help deaf students visualize sound. Eventually, that technology evolved into the telephone, and enabled people to converse across towns, across continents and across oceans.

Bell first transmitted speech through his invention on March 10, 1876, and soon after unveiled the device at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the United States.

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ALT: Light bulb in front of Edison portrait (AP Images)

A model of an 1879 streetlight burns in the Edison Museum in Edison, New Jersey, before a portrait of inventor Thomas Edison, known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

This lifelong experimenter brought the world electric light, recorded music and motion pictures. He also turned innovation into a science by inventing the research laboratory.

Over his career, Edison would successfully patent a record 1,093 inventions in the United States, more than twice that of any other U.S. patent holder.

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ALT: Brownie camera (AP Images)

This plain little brown box put the miracle of photography into the hands of ordinary people.

In 1885, with camera inventor William Hall Walker, innovator George Eastman patented a device that allowed photographers to advance multiple exposures of paper film through a camera, rather than handle individual single-shot plates. This became the basic technology for cameras until the advent of digital photography. It also became the basis for the first mass-produced Kodak camera, which retailed for $25 and started a photography craze.

In 1900, Eastman introduced the “Brownie” camera, which sold for $1 and became nearly ubiquitous in American households.

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ALT: Wright Flyer in air as people watch (AP Images)

On December 17, 1903, a pair of inventors from Ohio named Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the world’s first airplane.

The invention, known as the Wright Flyer, remained aloft for only 12 seconds, but it was a technological breakthrough that would effectively shrink the planet by allowing people to travel to anywhere on the globe in a matter of hours.

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ALT: Workers on assembly line (AP Images)

Workers at the Ford Motor Company’s plant in 1913 put together automobile components on an assembly line.

Henry Ford’s innovative use of a moving line reduced a car’s assembly time from 12 hours to 93 minutes. Prior to his invention, factory employees would work in groups to build one car at a time, but the assembly line let workers build cars one piece at a time, with each person doing a specific task.

The system cut the cost of assembling cars, and Ford passed those savings on to his customers. In 1915, he dropped the price of the popular Model T to $290 — and sold 1 million cars.

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ALT: Frozen food cases in grocery aisle (AP Images)

Frozen foods like these at the Karstadt department store in Frankfurt, Germany, are possible because an adventurous biologist named Clarence Birdseye developed a system for quick-freezing freshly caught fish under high pressure.

Birdseye expanded his “flash-frozen” technique to meats, vegetables and eventually to prepared meals, an innovation that brought convenience and variety to the world’s dinner tables.

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ALT: Philo Farnsworth (AP Images)

Philo Farnsworth, San Francisco–based inventor of the television, poses for a New York photographer in 1930.

In 1927, he laid the groundwork for a communication revolution by becoming the first inventor to successfully transmit a television image.

Perhaps prophetically, the image, composed of 60 horizontal lines, formed a dollar sign.

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ALT: Man with papers in foreground, woman at copy machine in background (AP Images)

Joseph C. Wilson, president of Xerox Corporation, holds 2,400 copies reproduced in a single hour on the new Xerox copier as it was introduced at a New York City press conference in 1964.

While searching for investment opportunities during the Great Depression, Wilson became interested in Chester Carlson’s xerography (from the Greek words for “dry writing”), which made photographic copies on plain, uncoated paper. Wilson made a deal with Carlson that was eventually broadened to include most of the patents and rights to his machine.

A businessman with imagination and patience, Wilson reinvented the Haloid Company as Xerox and made its name synonymous with photocopying.

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ALT: Bill Gates and Andy Grove standing behind computers (AP Images)

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Intel Corporation Chairman Andy Grove stand with three new laptop computers flanked by two very old personal computers at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, in 2001.

In 1977, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created a homemade microprocessor computer board called Apple I; IBM rolled out its “PC” in 1981. Neither would have fulfilled its promise without microchip processors and sophisticated programs.

Ultimately, the computer became personal through the efforts of many engineers, programmers and entrepreneurs who collaborated and competed to bring the public the next big breakthrough.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)