The world we live in today is a technological marvel. Super-computers mine endless possible equations, particles smash into each other miles underground, glinting cables of information stretch under vast oceans, and many global diseases have been snuffed out, greatly improving quality of life for billions of people all over the globe. All of this has been made possible by inventors and their fabulous creations — Thomas Edison and his light globe, Henry Ford and his Model T, and Nikola Tesla, with the laser, radio, and alternating current, just to name a few.
But how about those who changed the world before college? Here are ten kids who did just that, creating world-altering inventions before they could legally drink. And here we thought we were hot stuff because we made it to the end of Super Mario without getting hit once that one time.
In 1930, 16-year-old Iowan gymnast George Nissen got a brainwave after attending the local circus, where he saw trapeze artists finish their routines by dropping into a massive safety net held up off the ground. Nissen wondered what would happen if they could bounce straight back up into the air, and in 1934, after a few years of hard work in his parent’s shed, he produced an iron frame attached to a stretched canvas he called “the Bouncing Rig.”
Thankfully, he soon thought of a better name, by adding an “e” to the Spanish trampolin (meaning “diving board” or “springboard”) and quickly trademarked it. Using his bachelor’s degree in business and his unerring passion for jumping up and down, he spread his idea until it became a craze that spread to backyards all over the world. In his efforts to promote the trampoline even further, Nissen once rented a kangaroo, and by studying it and learning (the hard way) how not to get kicked, Nissen found he could eventually hop on the trampoline and jump in tandem with the kangaroo.
In the year 2000, George witnessed a lifelong dream of his fulfilled, when trampolining was made an actual Olympic sport.
What would we do if TV wasn’t a thing? Well, if we were anything like Philo Farnsworth, we’d just make one ourselves. When Farnsworth’s family moved from a log cabin in Utah to a brand new house in Idaho with an attic full of Popular Science magazines, ideas started going off in young Phil’s head. Before long, he had converted most of the family’s household appliances to electrical power.
But it was when a 14-year-old Phil was plowing one of the fields on his family’s farm that an even bigger idea came to him. Looking at the straight rows of dirt he was making in the ground, he suddenly saw how he could invent a television – by breaking down images into parallel lines of light, capturing them and transmitting them as electrons, then reassembling them on a screen for people to view.
In 1921, the 15-year-old had the sketches, diagrams, and notes to make an electronic television system. By 21, Farnsworth transmitted his first electronic image and held the earliest public demonstration of a working TV. By the time of his death in 1971 (long before Big Brother, luckily for him) the average television set included about 100 items that he originally patented.
8. Grain Reaper
Laboring away on his family’s Virginia farm at the start of the 19th century was never going to stop Cyrus McCormick from changing the world. His father had for many years tried to build a mechanized reaper that would massively cut down on the work required at harvest time, but had given up, saying it was impossible. Then 15-year-old Cyrus tried, soon inventing a lightweight cradle for carting harvested grain, followed by the first-ever reaper, a crude cast iron machine with triangle-shaped knives attached to a bar that harvested up to fifteen acres of wheat, compared to only three acres before.
He then spread the word to neighboring farms, winning them over by massively lowering labor costs and increasing harvest yields as the harvester exploded in popularity, winning international awards and bringing about an era of industrialized agriculture that continues to help feed our massive population to this day.
7. Thermoelectric Flashlight
Inspired by the story of her friend in the Philippines, who failed at school because she had no light to study with once it got dark, fifteen-year-old Ann Makosinski from Canada designed and built a thermoelectric flashlight that transforms the heat from your hand into a source of energy, without the need for any batteries or electricity. (10) Her device, which she calls the Hollow Flashlight, uses Peltier tiles — a device that produces energy when one side is heated and another side is cooled — to help the light last for over 20 minutes.
Having since given several TED talks, Makosinski has a refreshingly decisive view of our world and how to make it better: “You can’t just sit around waiting for new technologies to evolve and for the Earth to save itself! We all have different but important roles to play in this world!”
6. New Pancreatic Cancer Diagnosis
Jack Andraka is a pretty ordinary kid who enjoys mountain biking, rafting, Family Guy, and Beavis and Butthead. And in between those pretty standard pursuits, he also invented a new diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer. Not bad for a 15-year-old, especially when that test is 28 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive, and over 100 times more sensitive than any other diagnostic test in existence.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal cancers in existence, with a horrifying five-year survival rate of 6 percent. Some 40,000 people die of it each year, partly because the diagnosis is often delivered late, after the cancer has spread.
Jack invented a small dipstick probe that uses just a sixth of a drop of blood and senses a protein called mesothelin produced by the cancer, taking just five minutes to complete a test. With over 85% of pancreatic cancer diagnoses made late, Jack Andraka’s might just be responsible for saving untold numbers of lives. As an added bonus, it even works for ovarian and lung cancer.
5. Solar Death Ray
While the following invention may also change the world, it may possibly not be for the better. Possible future evil villain Eric Jacqmain created a solar death ray using a normal satellite dish and pasting onto it 5,800 small mirrors. It took him only 24 hours to build from start to finish, and purportedly has the intensity of 5,000 suns.
He says the ray generates enough power to melt steel, vaporize aluminium, boil concrete, turn dirt into lava, and obliterate any organic material in an instant. In his YouTube video, he comments (in a rather blasé fashion): “’I have vaporized before carbon, which occurs above 6,500 Fahrenheit.” It could also, if properly harnessed, power the world and rid of the need for fossil fuels in some kind of hand-held utopia, but Eric doesn’t seem to be all that interested in that. While the death ray ultimately destroyed itself, in a fire that torched the shed it was held in, Eric plans to build another soon, this time with over five times the power.
4. Ocean Sweeper
Out in the vast glittering Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Japan and the west coast of the US, floats what used to be one our dirtiest secrets: a bobbling mass of plastic, junk and refuse named the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Over the past 40 years it has multiplied one hundred fold and is slowly killing ocean life by breaking into tiny fragments and filling their stomachs, starving millions of them to death. While most people prefer to brush such facts back under the rug of their subconscious, 19-year-old Boyan Slat instead decided to help save the world.
Slat is convinced that the trash—all twenty billion tons of it—can be removed from not just the Pacific, but all the world’s oceans within five years. In his first TED talk, he explained that by implementing his invention of floating booms — based on the ocean’s design of a manta ray, powered by the sun and the waves to capture the plastic — that we would not only make millions of dollars in recycled materials but even massively clean up the quality of the world’s air. Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine phytoplankton that is being decimated by our trash and the CO2 it creates, and it’ll stay that way unless we help this young man clean it all up.
3. Exhaust Filter
Inspiration struck 15-year-old Param Jaggi in 2008, while he sat at a stop sign behind the wheel of a car in Plano, Texas. Watching the exhaust from the car in front of him slowly waft ever more pollution up into the atmosphere, he figured, why not just turn that into oxygen? He did so by utilizing the one resource every teen knows all too well: “Being self-driven and using that great resource which is Google, I went online and figured out most of what I wanted to learn,” says Jaggi.
Jaggi ended up designing a small device that plugs into a muffler and removes almost 89% of the carbon dioxide from a car’s exhaust through a live colony of algae that sucks in the CO2 from the exhaust, applies photosynthesis, and then releases both oxygen and sugar back into the air. (23)
Jaggi applied for a patent in 2009 and has been trying to better the filter’s design since then, while busy scooping up endless awards from the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency and Forbes, not to mention starting his own company, Evoviate (24)
Blind since he was three, Louis Braille received a scholarship at age ten to attend France’s National Institute for the Blind. The school taught its students to read by touch, with specially-made books. However, the books were large and expensive to make, and almost impossible to read, with some weighing over 100 pounds.
In 1821, a French soldier visited the school to introduce sonography, a code language read by fingertip to help soldiers communicate at night without light or making noise. Braille, when he should have been focusing on learning how to properly function without sight, chose to study sonography very closely. In 1824, when he was just 15 years old, he invented a simple system of small raised dots that were read by touch. Students learned and read Braille’s system much faster than sonography, so it quickly became the standard language at the school, and for blind people all over the world. The new language gave them access to the same information as their sighted peers and helped them to live a far more fulfilling life. All of this earned Louie the posthumous title of “Messiah for the Blind”. (27)
In 1642, after having already composed a treatise on the communication of sounds at the age of twelve, child prodigy Blaise Pascall designed and built the first ever calculator for his father, a tax collector. In a slight fit of ego, he named it the Pascaline. The size of a shoebox, it could add, subtract and (indirectly) divide and multiply, using a series of toothed wheels turned by hand. It could handle all numbers up to 999,999.999. Collecting taxes over a million dollars would simply have to wait for the upgrade.
Pascall then went and invented probability theory, the hydraulic press, the syringe, and roulette, while also becoming one of France’s most beloved and masterful writers, pretty much because he could.