Pure genius: The inventors' hall of fame

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This spring, America's National Inventors' Hall of Fame will confer its greatest honour on the men and women whose ingenuity has changed our lives. The creations may be familiar, but how much do we know about the people who gave them to us?

Walter Hunt: safety pins

Whether straining to preserve Elizabeth Hurley's modesty or puncturing the nose of a Mohawk-sporting punk rocker, the safety pin has enjoyed a uniquely colourful history.

The idea was born in 1849 when Hunt, a serial-patent-filing inventor from New York, had a "Eureka" moment while twisting a piece of wire in his workshop. After registering the brainchild, he flogged rights to repay a $15 personal debt, thereby surrendering any chance to cash in on his stroke of genius.

Beatrice Galilee, assistant editor of design magazine Icon, says of the pin: "Its evolution into an ornament is testament to its enduring practicality, its contained sense of danger and intrinsic aesthetic appeal."

Such praise has allowed Hunt to win recognition as one of the Victorian era's most important innovators. But, despite also achieving a degree of fame in his own lifetime, he died in 1859, having missed out on one of the great fortunes of his, or any other, era. RS

Beulah Henry: ice cream makers

Beulah Henry, born in Memphis Tennessee in 1887, earned the nickname "Lady Edison" for her prolific inventing career; by her death in 1973 she had invented 110 items and held 49 patents.

Her first patent was in 1912 for her ice cream freezer; she went on to invent a bobbinless sewing machine, an umbrella, a handbag with snap-on cloth covers to match your outfit and soap-filled sponges for children.

She was one of the first and few women to profit from multiple inventions. By the time she reached the age of 37 she was the president of two companies.

She moved to New York early in her success and cut an eccentric figure. She never married, devoting her time to painting and writing and left most of her money to animal charities. EW

Garret Morgan: traffic lights and gas masks

The self-educated and multi-talented Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1887 and moved to Cleveland, where he established one of the first black university fraternities. In his 20s, he experimented with breathing equipment and, in 1914, invented the "safety hood" for firefighters battling with lethal atmospheres. The hood – the first gas mask – had its first real test at Lake Erie in 1916 when 32 miners were trapped in a collapsed tunnel and rescuers couldn't reach them because of the smoke, dust and fumes. Morgan and some volunteers used the masks and saved many lives.

Morgan was an early petrolhead, but saw the need for better control of cars on urban roads. Gas-powered traffic lights had been around since 1868, but operated only with stop and go lights. Morgan saw the need for a three-step signal with an "amber light" stage, devised its working in 1923 and sold the idea to General Electric for $40,000. The electrical version became the standard device for controlling traffic. Eighty-five years later, Morgan's amber light is still making motorists accelerate like lunatics. JW

Samuel Colt: revolvers

The really smart thing about Samuel Colt's revolver was that it was designed to be manufactured en masse. Up until Colt's application for the patent in 1839, shooters were painstakingly manufactured, one at a time, by trained craftsmen.

"In America at that time, the demand for weapons was great," says Graeme Rimer of the Royal Armouries. "Colt had designed a gun that could be manufactured in bits by machines and then assembled later – the parts were also interchangeable. You no longer needed very skilled craftsmen."

So it was that manufacturing times and costs at Colt's factory, the Colt Armory, went down and profits went up. This strategy was copied and is often cited as the first example of mass-production and the blueprint for other factories that made the American Industrial Revolution happen. With a watertight patent and a virtual monopoly, Colt made a fortune out of his revolver; when he died in 1862 at just 47 his estate was estimated at $15m (£7.5m). EW

Lewis Waterman: fountain pens

The man who saved the world from the hell of inkwells and dipping pens was born in New York in 1837 and began his career as a teacher, carpenter and book salesman before settling down as an insurance salesman.

Bearded, bespectacled, he was utterly conventional; no one would have suspected the revolutionary within. One day, as he prepared to meet an important client, his rubbishy pen leaked ink all over the policy document. The ensuing flurry to clean the contract made him late for the meeting and he lost the client. He vowed there and then to invent something better. Improving on contemporary designs for a pen that would hold ink inside it, he invented a "nib and feed" mechanism that gave a steady stream of ink. He founded the Ideal Pen company, which, by the time he died (1901) was selling 1,000 pens a day.

They were works of superior craft, well-balanced with gold and silver overlays. When ballpoints swamped the market after 1945, Waterman pens survived on their reputation as high-quality writing instruments, for signing insurance documents with a (blot-free) flourish. JW

John Deere: ploughs

In 1836, John Deere, the son of a tailor, fled bankruptcy in Vermont, leaving his wife and six children behind, to look for work in Illinois. Once there, he discovered there was a shortage of blacksmiths. The locals' cast-iron ploughs also struggled to cut through the tough, sticky Illinois soil, so he decided to found a business making ones that actually worked.

Deere applied the same principles to his ploughs that his father has applied to needles in his workshop: that by polishing and sharpening, they would go through tough substances more easily. By fanatically polishing and sharpening ploughs and making them out of steel, Deere created the best farming products in town.

In 1841 Deere made 75 ploughs a year and 100 the following year; Deere's family joined him and in 1868 he left the running of the business to his son, Charles, in order to go into politics. The company expanded into all kinds of agricultural equipment and in 1912 it was turning out tractors, with the Dain All-Wheel Drive its first model.

Recalling Deere's early poverty, the company refused to repossess farm equipment from broke families during the Great Depression. John Deere is now the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in America and is 98th in the Fortune 500 ranking. EW

Dr Robert Adler: remote controls

The Austrian-born scientist Dr Adler is responsible for many an expansive posterior. In the 1950s, he was set the task of coming up with a device that could "tune out annoying TV commercials" by the chief executive officer of the company he worked for, Zenith Radio Corporation (later Zenith Electronics). He succeeded in 1956 with the Space Command wireless remote control, an improvement on the previous model, the Lazy Bones, which had a long cable. Although the remote control was a team effort – he worked on it with fellow Zenith employee Eugene Polley – it was Adler's suggestion of using ultrasonics that finally got rid of the cable.

Adler, who held more than 180 US patents by the time of his death last year, also pioneered "SAW" technology, as used in touch-screens on ticket-buying machines. Few men have achieved more in service of the couch potato. EW

Ruth Benerito: wrinkle-free cotton

Ruth Benerito, a chemist, was working for the US Department of Agriculture in New Orleans in the 1950s when the idea of wrinkle-free cotton struck her. Until then, if you didn't want to spend much of your waking life ironing you wore synthetic "drip-dry" fabrics – pretty nasty in hot weather.

Benerito discovered a way to treat the sur-face of cotton, using a chemical process called Esterification, or "crosslinking", which made the surface resistant to wrinkling. She pretty much saved the cotton industry from a take-over by easycare nylon and polyester (and the world from a lot of bad BO).

At 86, Benerito was given a lifetime achievement award by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. EW

Frank J Zamboni: ice rink resurfacing machines

The ice rink version of what skiers call a "piste basher", has taken on almost a cult status among both skaters and ice hockey fans. So, too, has its creator. Indeed, in 2000 one Canadian ice hockey fan drove one of his original machines almost 4,000 miles, from coast to coast, to pay homage to him.

Zamboni invented the machine in 1949. It uses a sharp blade to shave the surface of the ice, and collects the shavings before dirty water is vacuumed up and clean hot water spread on the ice for a level surface.

The prototype was based on a war surplus jeep engine and some old Dodge axles. Before its invention it would take a team of five men up to 90 minutes to lay a fresh sheet of ice. The machine can resurface a rink in just 15 minutes. Today the Zamboni business is still in family hands and a top of the range machine can set you back as much as $150,000 (£76,500).

"The Zamboni is hugely popular with fans," says Johnathan Weatherdon, of the National Hockey League Player's Association. "In fact, at minor league games, kids can't drag themselves away [from watching them] during the play-breaks to visit the concessionary stands." JM

Gail Borden Jr: condensed milk

New Yorker Borden had careers as a surveyor and a newspaper proprietor before turning to inventing full time, dreaming up his literal cash cow in 1851.

The idea for condensed milk came to him during an ill-fated journey on a steam ship earlier that year where he saw some children die due to lack of fresh milk and became determined to find a means to effectively preserve the foodstuff. He found that heating milk under high pressure vaporised the water from the liquid without scorching it, producing a thick, sweetened substance that could last for years.

The discovery came in time for his Union soldiers during the Civil War, which began 10 years later. The thirsty army's demands for a food which could be easily transported soon swamped his factories and he became rich. Borden spent the rest of his life, ahem, milking the proceeds. RS

Harvey Firestone: car tyres

Wheels once had wooden rims, then metal ones, both of which ill-protected carts and their contents from bumpy roads. When the bicycle came along, more comfort was needed for the human posterior, so leather tyres were developed, followed by solid rubber ones.

The pneumatic inner-tube was originally dreamt up by John Dunlop, a Scottish vet, in 1888. But the tyre as we know it derives from Firestone, a farm-boy from Ohio who worked in the rubber industry for years before cannily founding the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1900.

He chose pneumatics over solid rubber tyres, and made several refinements to ensure the outer rubber shell could withstand wear and tear. He met Henry Ford in 1895, when the latter was building his first car. They stayed in touch and, in 1905, Ford installed Firestone tyres on all Ford Motor Company cars. Finger of God had met finger of Adam. In the next 30 years, Firestone built up one of the largest rubber businesses in the world.

He, Ford and Thomas Edison, the three leaders of US industry, became friends, formed "The Millionaires' Club" and took holidays together. Firestone died in his sleep in Florida in 1938. JW

Ferdinand von Zeppelin: airships

That's Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin to you. Born in 1838 in Baden, Germany, Zeppelin revolutionised the dirigible (or airship) industry by building one with a metal frame, meaning it could be larger and carry heavier loads.

It took many false starts (and the re-mortgaging of his wife's estate to raise funds) for Zeppelin to get his blimp company off the ground, and when the fourth prototype, the LZ-4, crashed in 1908, it plunged Zeppelin into bankruptcy. Happily, this triggered a national wave of sympathy and the German people dug deep to set up the Zeppelin Foundation, which ushered in a golden age of blimp travel. Airships were also used in both world wars, though the military eventually realised that they were an easy target. Sadly, Count Ferdinand – who died in 1917 – never lived to see the height of his invention's fame, when a Zeppelin flew round the world in 1929.

The Hindenburg disaster in 1937, when LZ 129 exploded killing 36 people, was the downfall of Zeppelin. The export embargo to Germany meant a shortage of non-flammable helium and the Hindenburg was filled with very flammable hydrogen instead. Zeppelin got an irreversibly bad reputation and the name is these days perhaps best associated with a certain ageing rock band. JW

Margaret E Knight: flat-bottomed paper bags

Knight, born into a poor family in Maine, was toiling away in the local paper-bag factory when she realised that the bags they were making, which were flat like envelopes, would be far more useful if they had flat bottoms. She chucked in the day job and founded the Eastern Paper Bag Company in 1870, creating machines that would cut, fold and glue paper into a flat-bottomed bag shape. The bags were so much better for carrying groceries that Knight's machine was soon being used worldwide.

The entrepreneurial housewife was a prolific inventor, with 90 inventions and 22 patents to her name. Her first was lodged when – aged just 12 and working in a textile factory – she invented a safety catch for weaving looms that became a standard feature and is still used today. She also invented a piece of shoe-making machinery and a new kind of sewing machine. But, alas, her propensity for unwisely worded patent applications (often filed too late, when ideas had already been copied) meant that she never achieved the financial success she deserved. EW

Clarence Birdseye: frozen foods

Where would school dinners be without the original Captain Birdseye, a Brooklyn-born inventor whose pioneering work led to the creation of the fish finger? It was during an expedition to Labrador, Canada, that Birdseye first sussed that keeping food below zero might allow housewives to keep it fresh. Noting that native fishermen would lob their catch straight on to the surface ice, he realised that swiftly chilled nosh keeps much of its flavour without developing ice crystals.

Back home, Birdseye founded a company that sold machinery for fast freezing (he patented "the quick freeze double-plate machine"). He then decided to branch out into the sale of actual frozen food products. The fish finger – invented because fish froze quicker in Birdseye's early machines when cut into thin slabs – swiftly became a bestseller, and his products soon spread across the globe.

The businessman's legacy has included one of the world's best-known TV adverts, fronted by the famously hirsute, singing fisherman, Captain Birds Eye and his merry crew of seagoing primary school children.

The skipper was first seen in 1967. "There's a huge degree of nostalgia for the Captain," says the Birds Eye general manager, Anne Murphy. "All of us remember him as associated with our childhood. And he was a credible figure who gave mums reassurance about nutrition." RS

Milton Bradley: board games

Before Cluedo, before Monopoly, before even Scrabble, there was The Checkered Game of Life, a board game of squares around which players ushered a symbolic counter, its progress determined by the spin of a top. The man behind it, Milton Bradley, born in 1836 in Maine, worked as a draughtsman for a company that built railroad cars. His print business, but was unsuccessful until a friend gave him an imported children’s game that moved characters through squares in search of moral improvement.

In Bradley’s game, the player moved across squares of social virtues or vices, but his end was accomplishment, wealth, business success. The Checkered Game of Life was a hit when it appeared in 1860. The game sold out in two days and shifted 40,000 units in the next year. Although he turned his attention to scientific and educational causes, the Milton Bradley Company flourished and is nowpart of Hasbro, the world’s biggest game and puzzle maker. His first game endures to this day, in the form of The Game of Life. JW

Gideon Sundback: the zip

Swedish-born electrical engineer Gideon Sundback changed the way people got dressed forever when in 1913 he refined the "clasp locker" that had been originally invented by Whitcomb Judson.

By adding more teeth to this embryonic form of the zipper, and building a machine to stamp the teeth on to flexible lengths of material, he made the zip effective and easy to manufacture. But there were no hard feelings between Sundback and Judson – Sundback went on to marry Judson's daughter.

The term "zipper" was coined later by the company BF Goodrich in 1923 and in 1934 a Japanese company called YKK cornered the zipper manufacturing market and made hundreds of feet of zip per day. This sparked a protest by some clergy who argued that zippers made it too easy to take your clothes off and encouraged "loose" behaviour.

Zippers were first popular on clothes for children, whose little fingers struggled with buttons and laces. Later, they were used on adult clothing and by 1937 had replaced the button as the most popular fastening on trouser flies. EW

Linus Yale Jr: "unpickable" door locks

The son of a locksmith and inventor, Linus Yale Jr first tried his hand at becoming a portrait painter, but soon jacked it in to follow his father's footsteps. After setting up a lock factory in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts in 1849, he managed to perfect and patent his father's design for a cylinder lock that was far harder to pick than its rivals. The lock used a smaller flat key with serrated edges that when inserted pushes the bottom pins into position which opens the lock. Though Yale's invention was advanced – the basic tenets of his design remain unchanged today – it was in fact based on a mechanism used by the ancient Egyptians as early as 2000BC.

"For its time the Yale lock was a truly great innovation," says master locksmith Jeff Turner. "However these days, it should only be used as secondary security. It's not an unpickable lock."

Yale Jr barely got to see his invention become a worldwide brand: he died of heart failure on a business trip to New York shortly after the product entered mass production. The real money was made by his business partner, Henry Towne. Nonetheless, the Yale lock is still the world's most popular domestic security measure. JM

Robert N Hall: the magnetron

Magnetron isn't the name of Ian McKellen's character in the X-Men movies (that's Magneto), but it boasts similarly hi-tech – and world-changing – credentials. As the essential piece of kit in microwave ovens, the magnetron is the business end of the cooking process: a mind-bogglingly efficient creator of high-energy waves, which takes all the worry out of your desire for a £1.99 ready-meal that is satisfyingly scorching all the way through.

Such handiness did not come easily. The Connecticut-born physicist Hall earned his PhD in California before working for General Electric in New York. The magnetron was originally developed as a means of jamming enemy radar during the Second World War, and by 1945 it was suitably honed for use in our kitchens.

While the inventor gained academic recognition – he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 1978 – he never amassed the substantial fortune his genius deserved.

He did, however, help to create one of the great wonders of modern life: microwavable popcorn. And he also developed the laser used in CD players, thereby gaining street cred in showbiz circles and making him something of a deity among students. RS

Douglas Engelbart: the computer mouse

In his patent application of 1970, Douglas Engelbart described his invention as a "X-Y position indicator for a display system". Nearly 40 years on, and now ubiquitous, it is universally known as the mouse.

From its humble beginnings as a wooden shell with two metal wheels, the mouse transformed computers from specialised machines, closely guarded by men in white coats, to genuinely user-friendly tools that pretty much anyone can use.

"On a computer keyboard, there are more than a hundred ways to press the wrong key," says Darren Graham-Smith, the components editor of PC Pro magazine. "But with the advent of the mouse, suddenly anyone could sit down and communicate with a computer without needing to learn its special language."

Speaking in 1970, Engelbart was modest about his invention: "It was nicknamed the mouse because the tail came out the end."

Nonetheless, Engelbert was awarded the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000, the world's largest cash price for invention and innovation, and President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Technology in 2000. JM

Josephine Cochran: dishwashers

It was a rich housewife's nightmare. In 1886, Cochran, the wife of a politician, was hosting a dinner party at her home in Shelbyville, Illinois. After the plates and dishes from the party were cleared, she heard a suspicious medley of tinkling emerging from the servants' quarters – and found that some of her best fine china had been chipped.

Hugely aghast, this fiercely independent woman resolved to take the task of washing up out of the butterfingers of her household staff. Working with an engineer friend, Cochran measured her china, made wire holders for it, and devised a method by which the holders were doused with heated water, using a pump, before being allowed to dry. Cochran proudly marketed her idea to hotels and large restaurants at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, an event showcasing the brightest and best bits of the emerging American economy.

However, she would never live to see her product embraced by the wider public. This did not come until the 1950s, well after her 1913 death, when hot water became available in large quantities at home. Once this bridge was crossed, the clever contraption became a common household appliance. RS

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