The 50 Greatest American Inventions of the Past 50 Years
The past half century has produced some of the most significant and astounding inventions ever developed in human history, and many notable ones came to life in the United States. From deep space exploration to critical innovations in our medicine cabinets, many inventions on this list play a role in our daily lives, while others have had a broader impact on society as a whole. All, however, are uniquely American creations.
If a calculator hasn't saved you money, it probably helped you count it at one point or another, especially at tax time. In 1967, Nobel Prize winner Jack Kilby, an electrical engineer who had already changed the world by inventing the microchip, delighted math students around the world by inventing what was originally called the Pocketronic -- the basic pocket calculator.
On Sept. 30, 1968, the very first Boeing 747 rolled out of its hangar. Although it wouldn't be test flown for a year, the original jumbo jet would go on to become the world's best-selling plane and forever change the course of commercial aviation. Longtime Boeing employee Joe Sutter developed what was known as the "jumbo jet." The plane he designed was longer than the distance the Wright brothers traveled during their first flight.
When the Pokemon Go craze hit recently, modern augmented-reality gamers playing on their smartphones probably couldn't have imagined that the first virtual reality headset was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Award-winning University of Utah professor Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull are credited with developing the first virtual-reality and augmented-reality displays in 1968.
The first electronic immobilization device, better known by the brand name Taser, was developed in 1969 by a physicist and NASA associate named Jack Cover. The less-than-lethal device was developed for situations where firearms aren't practical, like airplane cabins. The device, which remains controversial, has revolutionized law enforcement.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, the Lunar Module is what ferried them there. Although 7,000 engineers, technicians and mechanics built the device, Thomas Kelley of New York directed the team and is credited with inventing the module, which made possible one of human history's most important events.
The same year that Americans first walked on the moon, a Xerox engineer named Gary Starkweather took a giant leap of his own by converting digital information into a format that a laser could read. His laser printer, which could print two pages per second, would go on to revolutionize offices and homes around the world.
Avid sailor and computer enthusiast Jack Kelley worked at the Stanford Research Institute in 1968 alongside Douglas Engelbart, the man who invented the computer mouse. Feeling that something was missing from Engelbart's mouse, Kelley invented a complementary mouse pad, which became a common sight in homes and offices across the country.
Apple, IBM, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are all household names in the tech world these days, but a relatively obscure man named John Blankenbaker is credited with inventing the world's first personal computer. Blankenbaker was a pioneer on the computing frontier when he built the Kenback-1 Digital Computer in his garage in California.
Tired of struggling to manicure the edges of his expansive Texas property after mowing, inventor George Ballas developed one of history's most important landscaping tools: the string trimmer. Although he called it the Weed Eater, it would forever be known colloquially as the weed whacker.
The era of constant connection began in 1971, when U.S. Department of Defense programmer Ray Tomlinson invented a way to send text-based messages from person to person through electronic mail, better known as email. Tomlinson is also credited with making the @ symbol a permanent fixture in human communication.
In 1971, track-and-field coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman had been searching for a light, cleatless shoe that had good grip on varied surfaces. One morning, he poured a rubberized liquid into his wife's waffle maker and the waffle sole was born. The shoe was such a success that Nike still sells Waffle Trainers to this day.
If you've ever purchased anything, you know that virtually every product is tagged with a barcode that includes a series of vertical lines and a 12-digit numerical code. That code, the UPC, was invented by IBM engineer George Laurer in 1974. Before barcodes caught on, cashiers punched in all prices by hand.
Now mandated as standard equipment on all cars, modern anti-lock braking systems (ABS) trace their roots to 1971, when the Delco Moraine company incorporated anti-skid technology originally developed to help airplanes stop into a prototype car.
From Atari and Intellivision to Nintendo and the graphically stunning web-based video games of today, gamers everywhere have Ralph Baer to thank for their hobby. Baer invented the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first home video game console after realizing that television, which was common by 1972, had more to offer.
Countless human lives have been saved by the diagnostic capabilities of the MRI machine, widely considered one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine. Dr. Raymond Damadian received a patent for his device in 1972 and would conduct the first full-body scan in 1977.
Our modern mobile era can trace its roots to 1973 and an engineer and inventor named Martin Cooper, who developed the first hand-held cellular phone. Mobile phones had been around since the 1940s, but their enormous size and a limited number of channels rendered them impractical. Cooper placed the world's first cell phone call from his car in 1973.
If you ever feel like you can never truly get away, you probably have inventor Stephen J. Boies to thank (or blame). People had been tinkering with contraptions to record the human voice from afar since the mid-19th century. But in 1973, Boies developed the Speech Filing System (SFS), which was the first voicemail. It allowed people to check messages from any phone even when the recording device wasn't present.
In virtually every office in America these days, you can find small squares of brightly colored paper temporarily glued to surfaces. In 1974, 3M co-workers Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver invented the now-familiar Post-it Note, with the former creating the paper and the latter developing the glue.
In 1975, the first nail was hammered into the film camera's coffin when Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson invented the digital camera. The 24-year-old from Brooklyn was the first to use a new technology called digitalization to capture images. Four decades later, we carry his invention in our pockets on our phones.
Billions of human beings are now connected through social media. All online social channels, however, can trace their roots back to 1978 and the genesis of all social media: the BBS. Developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, BBS connected users and enabled them to share text-based information long before the arrival of Facebook, Instagram, and even MySpace.
In May 1981, William A. Brastad was awarded a patent for a product he invented three years earlier. His invention, the microwave popcorn bag incorporated kernels, butter, and spices in a folded bag that trapped steam as it expanded, which then popped the kernels, forever changing our movie-watching experience at home.
People had been writing spreadsheets by hand for hundreds of years before the age of computers. But in 1978, Harvard Business School student Dan Bricklin began work on what he called a visible calculator. It would go on to become VisiCalc, the world's first electronic spreadsheet. VisiCalc is arguably the first app in history, and it shipped running on the brand new Apple II computer in 1979.
The versatile and reusable space shuttle revolutionized the space program and space travel in general. Although the shuttle was the result of a group effort, NASA pioneer Dr. George A. Mueller is credited with developing the shuttle after he completed Project Apollo. Space Shuttle Columbia's maiden launch was on April 12, 1981.
If you enjoy using a computer without typing long strings of complicated codes, you have Douglas Engelbart and Alan Kay to thank. In 1981, the pair developed the graphical user interface, which allows users to click icons and images using a mouse, which Engelbart invented more than a decade earlier.
The device that would evolve into the familiar computer trackball and TrackPoint started as the pointing stick, which was invented by IBM computer scientists Ted Selker and Joe Rutledge in 1984. The tiny ball, which sits nestled between the G and H keys on a QWERTY keyboard, allowed users to interact with their graphical user interface directly from their keyboards.
The computer age can be split into two eras: before 1984 and after. That was the year Apple released the Macintosh computer. Prior to the Macintosh, which was the first affordable computer ever to come with a graphical user interface and a mouse, computers were only designed for businesses, techies, and experts. The Macintosh, however, made computers available for the average person in the average household.
The best-known member of the anti-cholesterol statin family of drugs, Lipitor is the biggest-selling prescription drug in history. Countless patients at high risk for heart disease have extended their lives by taking Lipitor, which is now prescribed to 80 out of every 1,000 people. The drug was first synthesized by Dr. Bruce Roth for Warner-Lambert, a drug company with American roots dating back to the 1800s. Pfizer acquired Warner-Lambert in 2000.
Chuck Hull, known as the father of 3D printing, patented his stereolithography technique in 1986. The technique involves layering thousands of thin sheets of plastic on top of each other to create a physical 3D object. Once a novelty for hobbyists, the technology has since been used in applications ranging from manufacturing to medical science.
Luggage with wheels dates back to the early 1970s, but it was a top-heavy version with a pull-strap, which was clumsy when compared to today's modern Rollaboard-style luggage. Invented by Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath, the Rollaboard incorporated a now-familiar long, fixed telescoping handle that enabled luggage to be pulled upright on two wheels.
Leonardo da Vinci imagined and illustrated the concept of contact lenses as far back as 1508, and companies began making them out of glass in the late 1800s. In 1988, however, Johnson & Johnson released the modern disposable contact lens, beating rival Bausch & Lomb to the punch.
Although Murray Jarvik, Jed Rose and Daniel Rose were finally granted a patent in 1990, the trio of doctors perfected their nicotine patch in 1988. The three men had been experimenting with transdermal nicotine absorption, as well as the psychology of smoking addiction before developing the patch, which has since helped countless smokers quit.
In 1988, Northrop-Grumman unveiled a super plane it had been building for the better part of a decade. The B-2, better known as the stealth bomber, was a massive, deadly aircraft with a radar-dodging design that made it nearly undetectable to even highly advanced anti-aircraft systems.
Modern astronomy is epitomized by the Hubble Space Telescope. Named after Edwin Hubble, one of history's most important astronomers, the telescope was launched in 1990. The Hubble doesn't have one single inventor, but the collaborative effort has allowed scientists to peer through 6 billion light years of space since it departed Earth.
Adobe Photoshop is such a staple for image-editing that when a picture appears doctored, it is common to say it's been "photoshopped," even if the picture was edited with a different program. The word didn't exist, however, before 1990, when the Knoll brothers, Thomas and John, developed the first version of the software, which was initially purchased by another company before Adobe realized its incredible potential.
In 1992, University of Buffalo professor of pharmaceutical science Jerome Schentag developed and patented the smart pill. A revolutionary medical breakthrough, the smart pill is a medical device that is encapsulated in pill form and controlled by a computer. When patients swallow the pill, they swallow the device.
In 1993, Ashok Gadgil invented a lightweight, easy-to-use and economical device that used UV light to purify water. It could process four gallons per minute at a cost of five cents for every thousand gallons. The product, which can deliver clean water to remote, rural areas, has become vital in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Once a military novelty, drones are now must-have weapons for the world's most formidable fighting forces. It all started with the first, and still best-known: the Predator. Although the world's most feared and most famous unmanned aircraft was developed by Israeli-born Abraham Karem, it was built in -- and for -- the United States.
Wi-Fi is a critical ingredient for daily life in the digital age. Although the government had been utilizing Wi-Fi before 1999, that was the year it was released to the public, but not before a major naming war and a scramble to build compatible devices by several rival companies. During the last year of the 20th century, Apple began adding Wi-Fi slots to all its laptops.
When scientists Francis Collins and Craig Venter began work on mapping the human genome in the early 1990s, the government had already been using a much slower and more expensive method for sequencing the human genome's 3 billion base pairs. By developing a cheaper, faster method, Collins and Venter finished the project two years early and published their results in 2001, ushering in a new era in the effort to prevent and cure disease.
Although several other companies had previously released their own MP3 players, Apple's introduction of the iPod in 2001 revolutionized portable music and set the tone for how people would interact with their devices in the digital age. It also positioned Apple as the dominant force in tech hardware for the next decade.
In 2001, the world was introduced to one of the most easily identifiable transportation devices ever created: the gyroscopic, self-balancing Segway scooter. The Segway was the brainchild of Dean Kamen, one of the most prolific inventors of the modern age. Kamen has hundreds of patents across many fields.
Hailed by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2001, the Bio-Artificial Liver brought new hope to patients around the world. Developed by Dr. Kenneth Matsumura, the Bio-Artificial Liver utilized both the patient's blood and live rabbit cells to mimic the blood-cleansing process of the natural organ.
In 2004, Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook, a social media network he created for his fellow students. He would soon drop "The," branch the network out beyond the walls of Harvard and make sneakers and hoodies the standard uniform for millennial tech barons. Facebook is now worth $407.3 billion, and its founder is one of the richest people in the world.
On March 21, 2006, computer programmer and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sent the world's first tweet. Twitter, which was co-founded by fellow programmers Biz Stone and Evan Williams, would go on to revolutionize communication, journalism, entertainment, and politics. Today, a half billion tweets are sent every single day by 310 million active users. Some 83 percent of all world leaders have active Twitter accounts, including one notoriously Twitter-prone president.
The world was introduced to a revolutionary personal fitness tracker called Fitbit in time for Christmas in 2009. Invented by James Park and Eric Friedman, the device measures and records vital statistics and activity. Today, Fitbit claims more than 23.2 million active users and more than one-third of the wearable tech market.
In 2015, Tesla unveiled the Model X, which the company called "the safest, quickest, and most capable sport utility vehicle in history." It came complete with self-driving hardware, it could drive nearly 300 miles on a single electric charge, and it could go from 0-60 mph in 2.9 seconds.
Cheapism.com participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product through a link on our site. This helps support our work and does not influence editorial content.