Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The best Inventions of the past 50 years

Popular Mechanics online recently assembled a panel to decide the best inventions over the last 50 years. I was quite amazed with which ones they chose or didn't choose, as well as when they were invented. Here they are.....go to the link and see the full list.

It marks the official end of humanity's struggle for survival and the beginning of its quest for a really relaxing afternoon. The first wireless remote, designed by Zenith's Eugene Polley, is essentially a flashlight. When Zenith discovers that direct sunlight also can change channels on the remote-receptive TVs, the company comes out with a model that uses ultrasound; it lasts into the 1980s, to the chagrin of many a family dog. The industry then switches to infrared.

In 1945 Raytheon's Percy Spencer stands in front of a magnetron (the power tube of radar) and feels a candy bar start to melt in his pocket: He is intrigued. When he places popcorn kernels in front of the magnetron, the kernels explode all over the lab. Ten years later Spencer patents a "radar range" that cooks with high-frequency radio waves; that same year, the Tappan Stove Co. introduces the first home microwave model.

Enovid, a drug the FDA approves for menstrual disorders, comes with a warning: The mixture of synthetic progesterone and estrogen also prevents ovulation. Two years later, more than half a million American women are taking Enovid--and not all of them have cramps. In 1960 the FDA approves Enovid for use as the first oral contraceptive.

The Boeing 707-120 debuts as the world's first successful commercial jet airliner, ushering in the era of accessible mass air travel. The four-engine plane carries 181 passengers and cruises at 600 mph for up to 5280 miles on a full tank. The first commercial jet flight takes off from New York and lands in Paris; domestic service soon connects New York and Los Angeles.

There's a reason old windowpanes distort everything: They were made by rapidly squeezing a sheet of red-hot glass between two hot rollers, which produced a cheap but uneven pane. British engineer Alastair Pilkington revolutionizes the process by floating molten glass on a bath of molten tin--by nature, completely flat. The first factory to produce usable float glass opens in 1959; an estimated 90 percent of plate glass is still produced this way.

Black and Decker releases its first cordless drill, but designers can't coax more than 20 watts from its NiCd batteries. Instead, they strive for efficiency, modifying gear ratios and using better materials. The revolutionary result puts new power in the hands of DIYers and--thanks to a NASA contract--the gloves of astronauts.

The Unimate, the first programmable industrial robot, is installed on a General Motors assembly line in New Jersey. Conceived by George C. Devol Jr. to move and fetch things, the invention gets a lukewarm reception in the United States. Japanese manufacturers love it and, after licensing the design in 1968, go on to dominate the global market for industrial robots.

Telstar is launched as the first "active" communications satellite--active as in amplifying and retransmitting incoming signals, rather than passively bouncing them back to Earth. Telstar makes real a 1945 concept by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who envisioned a global communications network based on geosynchronous satellites. Two weeks after Telstar's debut, President Kennedy holds a press conference in Washington, D.C., that is broadcast live across the Atlantic.

Working as a consultant for General Electric, Nick Holonyak develops the light-emitting diode (LED), which provides a simple and inexpensive way for computers to convey information. From their humble beginnings in portable calculators, LEDs spread from the red light that indicates coffee is brewing to the 290-ft.-tall Reuters billboard in Times Square.

Widespread use of remotely piloted aircraft begins during the Vietnam War with deployment of 1000 AQM-34 Ryan Firebees. The first model of these 29-ft.-long planes was developed in just 90 days in 1962. AQM-34s go on to fly more than 34,000 surveillance missions. Their success leads to the eventual development of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles widely used today.

Robert Moog develops the first electronic synthesizer to make the leap from machine to musical instrument. Moog's device not only generates better sounds than other synthesizers, it can be controlled by a keyboard rather than by punch cards. The subsequent acceptance of electronic music is a crucial step in developing audio technology for computers, cellphones and stereos.

The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines releases a semi-dwarf, high-yield Indica variety that, in conjunction with high-yield wheat, ushers in the Green Revolution. Indica rice thrives in tropical regions of Asia and South America, raising worldwide production more than 20 percent by 1970.

Randolph Smith and Kenneth House patent a battery-powered smoke detector for home use. Later models rely on perhaps the cheapest nuclear technology you can own: a chunk of americium-241. The element's radioactive particles generate a small electric current. If smoke enters the chamber it disrupts the current, triggering an alarm.

Bell Labs' George Smith and Willard Boyle invent a charge-coupled device (CCD) that can measure light arriving at a rate of just one photon per minute. Smith and Boyle's apparatus allows extremely faint images to be recorded, which is very useful in astronomy. Today, its most noticeable impact is in digital cameras, which rely on CCD arrays containing millions of pixels.

James Russell, a scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, invents the first digital-to-optical recording and playback system, in which sounds are represented by a string of 0s and 1s and a laser reads the binary patterns etched on a photosensitive platter. Russell isn't able to convince the music industry to adopt his invention, but 20 years later, Time Warner and other CD manufacturers pay a $30 million patent infringement settlement to Russell's former employer, the Optical Recording Co.

Bill Bowerman, the track coach at the University of Oregon, sacrifices breakfast for peak performance when he pours rubber into his wife's waffle iron, forming lightweight soles for his athletes' running shoes. Three years later, Bowerman's company, Nike, introduces the Waffle Trainer, which is an instant hit.

Chrysler paves the way for the era of electronic--rather than mechanical--advances in automobiles with the electronic ignition. It leads to electronic control of ignition timing and fuel metering, harbingers of more sophisticated systems to come. Today, these include electronic control transmission shift points, antilock brakes, traction control systems, steering and airbag deployment.

Everyone agrees that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a brilliant invention--but no one agrees on who invented it. The physical effect that MRIs rely on--nuclear magnetic resonance--earns various scientists Nobel Prizes for physics in 1944 and 1952. Many believe that Raymond Damadian establishes the machine's medical merit in 1973, when he first uses magnetic resonance to discern healthy tissue from cancer. Yet, in 2003, the Nobel Prize for medicine goes to Peter Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for their "seminal discoveries." The topic of who is the worthiest candidate remains hotly debated.

The first satellite in the modern Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) is launched. (The GPS's precursor, TRANSIT, was developed in the early 1960s to guide nuclear subs.) It is not until the year 2000, though, that President Clinton grants nonmilitary users access to an unscrambled GPS signal. Now, cheap, handheld GPS units can determine a person's location to within 3 yards.

By moving the needle of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) across a surface and monitoring the electric current that flows through it, scientists can map a surface to the level of single atoms. The STM is so precise that it not only looks at atoms--it also can manipulate them into structures. The microscope's development earns IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer a Nobel Prize and helps launch the emerging era of nanotechnology.

Molecular biologist Alec Jeffreys devises a way to make the analysis of more than 3 billion units in the human DNA sequence much more manageable by comparing only the parts of the sequence that show the greatest variation among people. His method quickly finds its way into the courts, where it is used to exonerate people wrongly accused of crimes and to finger the true culprits.

Biochemist Kary Mullis invents a technique that exploits enzymes in order to make millions of copies of a tiny scrap of DNA quickly and cheaply. No matter how small or dried-out a bloodstain is, forensic scientists can now gather enough genetic material to do DNA fingerprinting. With PCR, doctors also can search for trace amounts of HIV genetic code to diagnose infection much sooner than by conventional methods.

Prozac becomes the first in a new class of FDA-approved antidepressants called "selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors," which block the reabsorption of the mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin, thereby prolonging its effects. Though at times controversial, Prozac helps patients cope with clinical depression, reshaping our understanding of how personality and emotion can be chemically controlled. Within five years, 4.5 million Americans are taking Prozac--making it the most widely accepted psychiatric drug ever.

Scientist Craig Venter announces that his company will sequence the entire human genome in just three years and for only $300 million--12 years and $2 billion less than a federally funded project established to do the same thing. Venter uses a method called "shotgun sequencing" to make automated gene sequencers, instead of relying on the laborious approach used by the government program. The result is an acrimonious race to the finish, which ends in a tie. Both groups announce the completion of the human genome sequence in papers published in 2001.

1998--MP3 PLAYER
Depending on who you ask, the MP3 is either the end of civilization (record companies) or the dawn of a new world (everyone else). The Korean company Saehan introduces its MPMan in 1998, long before Apple asks, "Which iPod are you?" When the Diamond Rio hits the shelves a few months later, the Recording Industry Association of America sues--providing massive publicity and a boost to digital technology.

2002--IEEE 802.16
The geniuses at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publish a wireless metropolitan area network standard that functions like Wi-Fi on steroids. An 802.16 antenna can transmit Internet access up to a 30-mile radius at speeds comparable to DSL and cable broadband. When it all shakes out, 802.16 could end up launching developing nations into the digital age by eliminating the need for wired telecommunications infrastructure.

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