How to determine who the greatest inventors in history were is often a passionate and, at times, even a heated debate. Many men can lay claim to having invented or, at very least, perfecting someone else’s obscure invention, making such a listing problematic at best. Fortunately, I don’t maintain any personal favorites, which will hopefully give me the ability to remain a little more objective than some people. I know that some readers whose favorites failed to make the list will consider their oversight a great travesty, but I really do try to do my best.
To pick the top names, I’ve tended towards those who have the greatest number of inventions to their credit—assuming fecundity to be a better gauge of genius—rather than selecting only those inventors who came up with the most significant devices (although there is a degree of overlap between them). That being said, there are a few inventors not on my list who hold over a thousand patents each; they fail to make the cut, however, because almost all of their patents relate to minor variations on a single device (such as a computer processor, for example) or are concentrated in one specific industry rather than over a range of disciplines. Additionally, I do factor in the major impact some inventions had on society but gauge them based upon the degree of technical challenges they represented and the level of technology available to the inventor at the time. And so, without further ado, here are my nominations for the ten greatest inventors of all time.
10. Leonardo Da Vinci
Many will doubtlessly be surprised that one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance has fallen all the way to number ten, but that’s not an indictment of him, but of the times he lived in. The problem was that his ideas were so far ahead of the technology of his age that almost none of his ideas could be realized; as such, technically he didn’t really “invent” anything at all. He was more of a futurist who imagined various innovations rather than a person who possessed the mechanical aptitude to build things with his own hands. Additionally, his interests were so varied that he didn’t get very far in developing any single idea beyond drawing a few sketches or describing his ideas in very general terms. Further, while he came up with futuristic things like gliders and tanks and submarines, he didn’t envision any truly remarkable inventions such as electricity, the telephone, photography, or even sliced bread. A great mind, no doubt, and had he the focus to concentrate on any single idea long enough to bring it into reality, he might well have proven to have been one of the greatest inventors in history. For now, however, I’m afraid the best he can do is finish out the top ten.
9. Edwin Land
Connecticut physicist and inventor Edwin Land didn’t invent photography, of course, but he invented or perfected almost everything else having to do with it. While a freshman at Harvard University in 1926, he developed a new kind of polarizer by aligning and embedding crystals in a plastic sheet, which he called Polaroid. Later, joined by other young scientists, he applied the polarizing principle to light filters, optical devices, and motion picture processes and founded the Polaroid Corporation in the process. Holder of no fewer than 535 U.S. Patents, Land is probably best known for developing the first self-developing camera, making it possible to embarrass your friends on the spot rather than having to wait for the film to come back from the drug store before humiliating them.
8. Benjamin Franklin
Seriously? Ben Franklin? Absolutely! Not many people know that among his many skills (Franklin was a noted polymath, an author and printer, a satirist, a political theorist,a politician, postmaster, scientist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat) he was a prodigious inventor. Among his many creations were the lightning rod—a device which saved countless homes and lives from lightning induced fires, the glass armonica (a glass instrument, not to be confused with the metal harmonica), the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, a carriage odometer and even the flexible urinary catheter (ouch). Franklin never patented any of his inventions, however, believing that innovations should be shared freely with others, which is why he is often overlooked for his creative talents. Writing in his autobiography, he said, “… as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” In my book, that makes Ben a top ten candidate.
7. Hero of Alexandria
If only the man had realized what he had with his invention, the Aeolipile—a primordial steam engine capable of making a metal ball spin—the industrial revolution might have started in 50 CE instead of 1750 CE! Alas, he thought it merely a toy and besides, with slaves around to do all the menial labor, what did you need steam engines for? Of course, Hero—probably one of the finest minds in the Roman Empire—also developed other useful items, including a force pump , the first syringe, a fountain capable of operating off hydrostatic electricity, a windmill operated organ, and even the first coin operated vending machine—all during a pre-industrial age—making him something of an early Thomas Edison. Too bad he didn’t take his inventions a little more seriously or develop them further; if he had, we might live in a very different world today.
6. Jerome “Jerry” Hal Lemelson
What, you’ve never heard of Jerome Lemelson? Well, you have now, for he was one of the most prolific inventors in history, with 605 patents to his credit. What did he invent? Things like automated warehouses, industrial robots, cordless telephones, fax machines, videocassette recorders, camcorders and the magnetic tape drive used in Sony’s Walkman tape players. Lemelson also filed patents in the fields of medical instrumentation, cancer detection and treatment, diamond coating technologies, and consumer electronics and television. He was probably best known, however, as a tireless advocate for the rights of independent inventors, which made him a controversial and even much loathed figure by patent attorneys and some of the larger companies whose noses he tweaked, but a champion of the independent inventor’s community.
5. George Westinghouse
Though it was Edison that got most of the credit, it’s hard to argue that in many ways Westinghouse’s contributions were almost as great as Edison’s. Certainly it was his electrical system, which used alternating current based (a result of the work of Nikola Tesla, by the way), that ultimately prevailed over Edison’s insistence on direct current and paved the way for the modern power grid. But Westinghouse wasn’t a one-hit wonder; before he bested Edison with his AC power system, he invented the railway air brake, which did much to improve the safety of the American railway system. Like Edison, he also had an experimental streak which induced him play around with a perpetual motion machine. It didn’t quite work, of course (largely due to the fact that such a machine would violate the laws of physics) but you couldn’t blame him for trying. In any case, a prolific inventor and engineer with 361 patents to his credit, Westinghouse easily rounds out the top five candidates.
4. Alexander Graham Bell
You don’t often see the inventor of the telephone finish this high on such a list, but when one looks at the accomplishments the man was responsible for during his seventy five years on earth, it seems impossible not to include him in the top five. Though most famous for the telephone (which came about as a result of his early work with the deaf) not many people know he also invented devices that did everything from locate icebergs and detect minor hearing problems (an audiometer) to finding hidden treasure (he invented the modern metal detector). He even tried his hand at eugenics, built hydrofoils and worked on early airplanes, demonstrating quite a range of interests. And that copy of National Geographic Magazine you’ve been meaning to get around to one of these days? Thank Mister Bell for that as well, for he was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Foundation way back in 1888. Quite a résumé by any standard, if you ask me.
3. Thomas Edison
What? The most prolific inventor in modern history, with over a thousand patents to his credit, not number one? The inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the man who electrified New York City—literally—not top dog? Impossible! Actually, while Edison was a gifted man, many of his better known inventions were developed by others working for him or in collaboration with an entire design team, making him responsible for their development rather than their chief inventor. He also had a nasty tendency to renege on contracts and claim credit for other people’s work, but then nobody is perfect. However, even if he wasn’t personally responsible for everything that came out of his shop at Menlo Park and was at time integrity challenged, he was the master of R & D and oversaw the creation and production of many of the great inventions of the nineteenth century, earning him, if not the number one spot, at least a top five showing.
2. Nikola Tesla
Though largely unknown during his lifetime and a man who died in relative obscurity (and as something of a reclusive mad scientist at that), the brilliant Serb—who is enjoying a resurgence in popularity lately—was probably more responsible for the birth of commercial electricity than any man in history. While Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems, including the polyphase system of electrical distribution and the AC motor which helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution, he is probably best known for his work in the field of electromagnetism. He also contributed in varying degrees to the science of robotics, laid the foundation for the development of remote control, radar, and computer science, and even helped in the expansion of ballistics, nuclear physics, and theoretical physics. Some people also believe he developed anti-gravity, teleportation, and even death rays, but that’s a bit more difficult to substantiate. In any case, with 111 patents to his credit, he was genuinely one of the finest and most innovative minds in history whose recognition has been long in coming.
1. Archimedes of Syracuse
How did this ancient Greek scholar come out at number one? Well, first, he did happen to be one of the greatest mathematicians of all time who came close to precisely calculating the value of pi, figured out how to determine the area under the arc of a parabola, and thought up lots of other stuff that brings nightmares to generations of high school math students on a daily basis. Oh, and he also invented a bunch of cool machines, including siege weapons and possibly even a device that may have been capable of setting Roman ships on fire by using mirrors to focus sunlight onto their sails. So how does that make him deserving of the top spot? Because he did all of this more than 2,000 years ago, and without the aid of computers or the benefit of the technologies available to many inventors today. Additionally, though he may have studied at the libraries at Alexandria (though this is not confirmed) he acquired much of this knowledge the old fashioned way—by thinking it up himself. Considering the times and the obstacles he faced in doing this, he gets my vote for being the greatest inventor of all time.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.