May is National Inventors Month, which means it's time to celebrate the innovators, tinkerers and creative thinkers that have enhanced our quality of life with their brilliant ideas. We would like to pay homage to each and everyone of them but alas, there are simply too many. So here are a few, whose inventions, ideas and vision impact most of us, on a daily basis.
While best known as the founding father of the Untied States of America, Ben Franklin was also a writer, inventor, scientist and visionary who is responsible for not just innovations, but also, the establishment of many essential services that we take for granted today.
Born in the colonial era when young boys were removed from school at an early age and forced to apprentice with skilled craftsmen, Ben spent his early years helping his older brother James, at his printing shop. Besides learning the skill, he also honed in his writing talents and was probably the first author to use a 'pen' or 'alias' name - though he did it more to fool his brother than make a name for himself.
While he enjoyed the printing business, Ben was not happy living with his brother who beat him frequently. Hence, a few years later, he decided to run away and in 1726, after a few adventures, founded the Pennsylvania Gazette, which soon became a leading newspaper and the largest bookseller in the colonies. However, it was his creation of a series of Almanacs under the alias Poor Richard that made Ben wealthy enough to leave the business at the age of 42 and pursue his other interests, which as it turns out, were many!
Always fascinated with electricity, Ben not only proved that lightning was caused by electricity he also invented the lightning rod. When his eyes started getting weak, he decided that putting on two pairs of glasses was too much trouble and invented the bifocals which are widely used till today. His passion for music led to the invention of an instrument called the glass harmonica, which was used in concerts for over 40 years.
In addition to that he was also responsible for organizing America's first volunteer fire department, re-organizing the United States Postal Services and even, establishing the nation's first public library and general hospital.
And all this, before he entered politics, first as a clerk for Pennsylvania's Assembly, then as an elected member. When the French and Indian war broke out, Ben served as a general for the English army, but after they won and imposed the Stamp Act that taxed American colonies on essentials, Ben became a vocal foe and began fighting for American rights and freedom.
In July 1776, he was one of the five people that Congress entrusted with drafting the Declaration of Independence. He was also one of 40 people invited to sign the United States Constitution on September 17th, 1787. Though he suffered from many ailments during the last few years of his life, Ben never stopped making a difference - His last public act? Sending a paper to Congress asking them to put an end to slavery!
Imagine living without light, music and movies! That is the world Thomas Alva Edison grew up in and if it hadn't been for his curious nature and smarts, we may all still be shrouded in darkness, listening to . . . well not much!
Naturally curious since he was young, Edison set up his first laboratory inside the baggage car of the commuter train from Port Huron to Detroit, Michigan where he worked every day selling snacks, newspapers and magazines to passengers.
So it was only natural that this youngster would spend his life either creating or improving things. With over 1,090 patents in his name, Edison tried his hand at inventing almost anything and everything - Some like improving the telephone, creating the first light bulb and the first phonograph were huge successes, others such as his first invention, an electronic voting machine, not so much. However, in this case it was not because there was anything wrong with the device, but because lawmakers liked the slow voting process since it gave them the chance to convince fellow legislators to change their stance.
And while most of his famous inventions are well-known and acknowledged, the one that is not was his attempt to build an electric battery for automobiles, because he believed they would be better for the environment. Alas, by the time he had perfected the storage battery in 1903, Henry Ford had already begun selling gasoline powered cars. And while the battery proved to be a moneymaker because it found other uses such as powering miner's hats, ships and railroad cars, what a different world we would have been living in, had it been used to power one of the world's biggest polluters - gasoline-powered cars!
While Edison spent his entire life inventing, Einstein spent his, thinking about theories which in turn, led to some extraordinary inventions.
However, there was nothing remotely extraordinary about the chubby young boy born in Ulm, Germany on March 14th, 1879. In fact, if rumor is to be believed, he didn't say a word until he was four, but when he did, it was a full sentence about his soup being too hot. When asked why he had been so silent, he apparently quipped 'Because up to now, everything was fine'.
His radical thinking resulted in numerous important discoveries - Like the fact that the empty part of Space was well . . . empty, as opposed to being filled with something called ether or that light bends as it travels through Space, a discovery that made him world famous or that Space was curved. Then there was the theory of relativity, which states that everything except light travels at different speeds depending on different situations and the photoelectrical effect, which not only won him the Nobel Prize in 1922, but also, led to the invention of the television.
However, his most important theory, which was also his biggest regret was thinking up the scientific formula - E (energy) = M (mass) C2 (speed of light), which in the most simplest form means that when a little bit of mass is changed into energy, a lot of energy is released.
This simple deduction is what led to the development of the atomic bomb, for when an atom is split, mass changes to energy; in this case an incredible amount of destructive energy, is released. Even though he is the one that encouraged President Roosevelt to build a bomb because he was afraid Adolf Hitler was developing one, the peace-loving man lamented about it until the day he died.
Like many geniuses, Einstein was a little eccentric - For how else can you explain his decision to donate his brain to science. Following his death on April 18th, 1957, Dr. Thomas Harvey extracted his brain, gave it a cursory examination and noticing nothing special, set it aside in a bottle of formaldehyde, where it lay for about forty years. Before he passed away, he gave a piece of of it to Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn, and a few pieces to researchers who did a more detailed examination and noticed that Einstein's brain was lighter, wider and had more grooves than a normal person's brain. Today whatever remains of it sits in a jar at Maryland's National Museum of Health and Science - Definitely not the outcome the genius inventor had envisioned when he made the decision.
Whether you are typing a school assignment on your MacBook, jamming to music on the iPod, feverishly texting friends from your iPhone or, merely putzing around with your iPad - You have one visionary to thank, the legendary Steve Jobs!
A college dropout, Jobs spent the first few years of his career working at gaming company Atari. On April 1st, 1976, working out of a garage in Northern California, he and high school pal Steve Wozniak, built their first computer circuit board, creating what would eventually become the Apple 1 computer. Though it looked nothing like the sleek Apple products we are used to, it and future versions were quite successful and Apple Inc. was born, with Jobs at the helm.
In 1983, a year before the first Macintosh was released, Jobs relinquished the CEO position to an outsider named John Sculley. By 1985, the two had a falling out and Jobs left the company, which as it turns out, was fortuitous for all of us. For not only did he begin a new computer company called 'NeXT', but also, brought us the magical world of animated movies by purchasing a tiny division of Lucasfilms known as 'Pixar Animation Studios', and turned it into a revolutionary movie studio, responsible for classics like Toy Story, Cars, The Incredibles and WALL-E, among others.
And then, the world got lucky again - Things were not going so well at Apple Inc. and the company lured Jobs back, by purchasing NeXT. Soon, he was CEO and the rest as they say, is history. Under his magical touch the sleepy little Cupertino-based company turned into one of world's most valuable corporations following the introduction of innovative products and sleek computers. Today, thanks to this amazing visionary, Apple Inc. is a household name, affecting all of us in some way or another which is probably why when Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer on October 5th, 2011, it felt as though we had all lost a loved one!
Though we are today accustomed to having a personal computer, such was not the case in the early 1970's when Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft, with a vision to put 'a computer on every desk and home'.
Born in an era when the only computers available were giant mainframes that were used by corporations and cost million of dollars, Bill's first exposure to something even close, came in middle school, when he was exposed to a Teletype machine. Resembling a giant typewriter, the noisy device was connected to a mainframe computer located in downtown Seattle, which allowed the students to send messages and receive responses. Bill was hooked!
From then on, the young boy spent all his free time in that room. By the time he was 13 he had written his first program for playing tic-tac-toe. However, access to even the Teletype machine was not free and when his parents decided that Bill should pay for it from his own allowance, the eighth grader went and found himself a job, at a new company called Computer Center Corporation.
Here, in return for finding bugs or flaws in their programs, Bill was awarded free computer time. Not surprisingly, the young boy spent many weekends at 'work', putzing around with the giant mainframe. While the company went out of business within a year, Bill was just getting started - He and another young programmer by the name of Paul Allen founded Lakeside Programmers and earned $200,000 with the first program they wrote - One that measured Seattle's traffic flow.
When the minicomputer kit was introduced by a company called Altair, Bill and Paul who were by now college freshmen, hit upon a brilliant idea - To develop software for it - For believe it or not, the computer came with none, which is like having a car with no gas. By the age of 19, the two brilliant men had founded Microsoft and created the first programming language for the computer. Before they knew it, IBM came knocking at their door to ask the tiny company to develop an operating system for the personal computer giving birth to MSDOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) which soon became the standard operating system on every PC. The rest as they say, is history.
Microsoft grew like a weed and for many years dominated the personal computer market making both founders billionaires. While Paul Allen left the company earlier on due to an illness, Bill continued to run it until 2000 and as the company prospered so did he, making him the richest man on earth from 1995 to 2007 and then again in 2009.
While that is certainly impressive, what is even more so, is what Bill and his wife Melinda Gates decided to do after he retired - Donate 95% of the wealth to causes they believe in. In 2000, they transferred $26 billion USD to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established to eradicate diseases like polio, malaria and yellow fever. The best part is, Bill is as passionate about this cause as he was about building Microsoft. As he succinctly puts it - With great wealth comes great responsibility - the responsibility to give back to society' .
Resources: Who was Thomas Alva Edison, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Who is Bill Gates