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The Greatest American Inventions of the Past 50 Years

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American Ingenuity on Parade

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 advances in computing to critical innovations in our medicine cabinets, many American 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.


Related: 74 Brands That Are Still Made in America

1971: Personal Computer
1971: Personal Computer by Kathryn Greenhill (CC BY-SA)
1971: Weed Whacker
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1971: Weed Whacker

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.


Related: Clothing Brands That Are Still Made in America

Email
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1971: Email

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.

1971: Waffle Sole Running Shoe
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1971: Waffle Sole Running Shoe

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.


Related: Where to Buy Shoes and Boots That Are Made in America

1971: Universal Product Code (UPC)
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1971: Universal Product Code (UPC)

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.

Anti-Lock Brakes
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1972: Video Game Console
1972: Video Game Console by Evan-Amos (CC BY-SA)

1972: Video Game Console

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.

MRI - Magnetic resonance tomography imaging scan device in blue color
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1972: Magnetic Resonance Imaging

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.

1973: Cellphones
1973: Cellphones by Rico Shen (CC BY-SA)

1973: Cellphones

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 cellphone call from his car in 1973.

1973: Voicemail
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1973: Voicemail

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, which was the first voicemail. It allowed people to check messages from any phone even when the recording device wasn't present.

1974: Post-It Notes
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1974: Post-It Notes

In virtually every office in America these days, you can find small squares of brightly colored paper glued temporarily 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.

First Digital Camera
First Digital Camera by Mr. Gray (CC BY)

1975: Digital Camera

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.

1978: Bulletin Board System
1978: Bulletin Board System by Jscott (CC BY-SA)

1978: Bulletin Board System

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, the BBS connected users and enabled them to share text-based information long before the arrival of Facebook, Instagram, and even MySpace.

1978: Microwave Popcorn Bag
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1978: Microwave Popcorn Bag

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.


1978 was also notable as it was the year when the U.S. military launched the first satellite of a proposed 24-satellite global positioning system called NAVSTAR, later known as "the GPS system" and eventually used in part for civilian purposes.

1978: The Electronic Spreadsheet
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1978: Electronic Spreadsheet

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.

1981: Space Shuttle
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1981: Space Shuttle

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.



GNOME Shell
GNOME Shell by Athenkosi Hlubi (CC BY-SA)

1981: Graphical User Interface

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, an item Engelbart invented more than a decade earlier.

1984: Pointing Stick
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1984: Pointing Stick

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.



Macintosh Personal Computer
Macintosh Personal Computer by w:User:Grm wnr (CC BY-SA)

1984: Macintosh Personal Computer

The computer age can be split into two eras: before 1984 and after. That was the year Apple released the Macintosh computer. Before the Macintosh, which was the first affordable computer ever to come with a graphical user interface and a mouse, computers were designed only for businesses, techies, and experts. The Macintosh made computers available for the average person in the average household.


Related: Apple, Chanel, and Other Brands That Almost Never Go on Sale

1985: Lipitor
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1985: Lipitor

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 in the United States by Dr. Bruce Roth for Warner-Lambert, a drug company with American roots dating back to the 1800s. Pfizer acquired Warner-Lambert in 2000.

3D Printing
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1986: 3D Printing

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.

1987: Rollaboard Luggage
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1987: Rollaboard Luggage

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 — just one of many American inventions that we now use on a daily basis.

Inserting contact lens
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1988: Disposable Contact Lenses

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.

1988: Nicotine Patch
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1988: Nicotine Patch

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.

1988: Stealth Bomber
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1988: Stealth Bomber

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.

1990: Hubble Space Telescope
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1990: Hubble Space Telescope

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.

Photoshop
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1990: Photoshop

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.

1992: Smart Pill
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1992: Smart Pill

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.


Related: 50 Ways for Seniors to Save on Medical Expenses

1993: UV Waterworks
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1993: UV Waterworks

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 5 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, and one of many American inventions that has helped to save lives.

1994: Predator Drone
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1994: Predator Drone

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.

Google
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1996: Google

In 1996, two students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin unveiled a primitive "crawler" that examined all 10 million documents that existed on the World Wide Web at that time. The crawler would go onto become the name that is still synonymous with online search: Google.

1999: Wi-Fi
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1999: Wi-Fi

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.

The first printout of the human genome to be presented as a series of books, displayed at the Wellcome Collection, London
The first printout of the human genome to be presented as a series of books, displayed at the Wellcome Collection, London by Russ London (CC BY-SA)

2001: Human Genome Map

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.

Old meets new(-ish)
Old meets new(-ish) by Toby Bradbury (CC BY-NC-ND)

2001: iPod

Although several other companies had 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.

2001: Segway
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2001: Segway

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.

2001: Bio-Artificial Liver
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2001: Bio-Artificial Liver

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.


Related: 15 Countries Where Americans Can Save Big on Medical Care

Facebook Sets the Standard ...
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2004: Facebook

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 around $615 billion, and its founder is one of the richest people in the world.

2005: Youtube
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2005: YouTube

YouTube is the world's most popular video-sharing site. Developed by PayPal employees Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, the site's user-friendly, shareable format has been a key mover in not just American culture, but world events from the Arab Spring revolts to the rise of Justin Bieber. 

Twitter Icon
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2006: Twitter

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 in San Francisco, 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. A majority of world leaders have active Twitter accounts.

First iPhone on display under glass at the January 2007 Macworld show
First iPhone on display under glass at the January 2007 Macworld show by ArnoldReinhold (CC BY-SA)

2007: iPhone

By 2007, the mobile phone was nearly universal. But that year, Apple, under the stewardship of Steve Jobs, revolutionized the budding smartphone industry with a device that crammed the operational capacity of a computer into the body of a phone. The iPhone was born.

Fitbits
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2009: Fitbit

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 31 million active users and more than one-third of the wearable tech market.

Lab-Grown Burger
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2013: Lab-Grown Burger

Six years ago, Dutch scientist Mark Post produced the first lab-grown burger — it took two years and $300,000, however. Since then, the cost of producing what is being coined "clean meat" — due to its much-lower environmental impact — has lowered while the number of players racing to produce meatballs, steaks, pork, poultry, and seafood, has skyrocketed. Early in 2019, Bill Gates called lab-grown meats one of the "10 Breakthrough Technologies" of 2019. 


For more American inventions and innovators looking to make a difference in the world, check out 26 Companies That Are Doing Good Deeds With Your Dollars.

2015: Tesla Model X
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2015: Tesla Model X

In 2015, Tesla unveiled the Model X, which the company called "the safest, quickest, and most capable sport utility vehicle in history." It came off the assembly line complete with self-driving hardware, goes nearly 300 miles on a single electric charge, and accelerates 0-60 mph in 2.9 seconds. In 2017, Tesla released the more budget-friendly but equally impressive Model 3.


Related: 20 Electric Cars Cheaper Than a Tesla

3D Ocean Farms
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2017: 3D Ocean Farms

Another burgeoning technology meant to address both climate and overpopulation concerns, this brainchild — in which crops such as clams, kelp, oysters, and mussels, are grown on ropes anchored to the sea floor — was named one of the top inventions of 2017 by Time magazine. The technology's frontrunner, GreenWave, was started by former fisherman turned sustainable shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith



Google Duplex
Google Duplex by Maurizio Pesce (CC BY)

2018: Google Duplex

More of an extension of an invention — that of artificially intelligent home assistants like the Amazon Echo — the Google Duplex is actually one of a few front-runners of next-gen AIs that can perform eerily human-like, conversational tasks like screening calls and making restaurant reservations, thanks to better speech training and synthesis techniques. Not yet invented: a way to balance improved technology with privacy and security concerns

Augmetics xvision surgical headset
Augmetics

2019: Augmedics Xvision

Xvision is as close as surgeons can get to having actual X-ray vision — outside of science fiction movies, of course. The culmination of several years of research and development by the Chicago-based Augmedics company, Xvision is an augmented reality headset that guides surgeons through incredibly complex spinal surgeries. It superimposes a 3D image of a patient's spine, rendered from a CT scan, over the outside of the patient's body, allowing the surgeon to "see through" the patient. The Food and Drug Administration approved it for use in December 2019, and hospitals like Rush University Medical Center and Johns Hopkins are now using it.

Covid-19 Vaccine
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2020: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine

From the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the question on everyone's mind was when a vaccine would be ready. On Dec. 11, 2020, the question was answered when the FDA issued the very first emergency use authorization for a vaccine, which would be manufactured by New York-based Pfizer. At the time, nearly 3,000 Americans were dying every day. That's about one 9/11 every 24 hours.


Related: Pandemic Phrases That Have Infected Our Vocabulary

Espresso Chocolate Chip Cookies
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More American Inventions

Curious about older American inventions? Here are some highlights of other ingenious innovations that were developed in the United States:


1903: First Fully Practical Airplane
The Wright brothers successfully launch the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight.


1938: Chocolate Chip Cookies
Created by Ruth Wakefield with the help of Susan Brides at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. This is the first year the recipe appeared in print.


1969: Laser Printer
A Xerox engineer named Gary Starkweather changed homes and offices forever with his laser printer, converting digital information into a format that a laser could read.