Innovation has come at such a dizzying pace in recent decades that it has transformed our world in ways once only imagined in science fiction. As part of our "Future of Innovation" special report, we decided to take a look at great innovations of the recent past. Compiling a definitive list turned out to be difficult, if not impossible — and almost certainly up for fierce debate. Nevertheless, we gave it a shot.
Here is our list of the 15 of the most influential inventions over the past 50 years, created using a variety of studies as reference points, including ones from Knowledge@Wharton and Popular Mechanics. We also considered other criteria: Did it improve quality of life? Did it address a compelling need or problem? Was it a fresh breakthrough with a "wow" factor? Did it change the way business is conducted? Did it spark an ongoing stream of new innovation? Did it lead to the creation of a vast, new industry?
Click ahead to see our list of the top five innovations in three fields: medicine, energy, and technology.
By Jessica NaziriPosted 19 September 2011
Early versions of the ATM appeared in the 1960s, but they dispensed only predetermined amounts of money and were not networked to computers. In the 1970s, however, after the magnetic stripe swipe card was introduced and the machines were networked to computers, the use of ATMs expanded quickly. These days these machines have become a part of daily life, and they allow many people to do their banking 24/7 without human contact.
Scientists began to sequence some DNA molecules in the late 1970s. Then, in 1990 the U.S. government organized the effort to map the human genome. This effort to identify all of the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA was completed in 2003. The achievement led to great advancements in the research of and treatment of genetic diseases.
Although electric cars have appeared in various configurations since the 1920s, the green movement hastened their development and adoption. Toyota's Prius, a partially electric vehicle, has been available for about 15 years. More recently, Tesla Motors, founded in 2003, unveiled its first production model all-electric car in 2008. It was the first company to produce a vehicle that did not have significant obstacles to production or sales. According to the company website, Tesla vehicles boast an 88 percent efficiency rating compared to 20-25 percent for traditional gasoline-powered cars. Ford Motor, Honda, and other major carmakers have also made major advances in the field.
The science behind fiber optics has been studied since the 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the quality of optical fibers improved enough to allow its use in communication applications. Fiber optics quickly became the preferred medium for telecommunication and networking because the cables can span long distances with few repeaters and carry signals at rates over 100 gigabytes per second. The relative importance of fiber optic technology is evidenced by its speed and effectiveness in shaping the communications infrastructure during a very short period in recent years.
The 1980s bred major developments in surgery, including this one. The first minimally invasive surgery was performed in 1987, although robots were first to perform biopsies as early as 1985. In the early 1980s, scientists discovered that lasers could be used to cut organic tissue. All of these developments helped make surgery more precise, which in turn made surgery safer and reduced recovery time for patients.
Scientists first discovered the photovoltaic effect in the 1800s, while using solar power to produce steam. The modern solar energy movement started as a response to the oil embargo and energy crisis of the 1970s. Today, there are a number of commercial solar power plants, and some individuals are using solar panels to heat houses and commercial buildings. Some generators are even contributing energy to the electric grid. The innovation of photovoltaic solar energy has helped address concerns about climate change, energy efficiency, and energy security.
The first bar code (with reader) was invented in the 1950s, but the bar code wasn't used commercially until the 1960s. In the 1970s, a bar code standard, UPC, was developed, and the bar code’s use expanded. Bar codes are now a standard in the retail industry and also have important manufacturing and military applications.
Birth control pills are synthetic hormones that mimic the way real estrogen and progestin work in a woman's body. Envoid, the first oral contraceptive, was submitted first for regulatory approval in 1957 as a treatment for menstrual disorders and infertility, not as a contraceptive (although the drug had been developed as an oral contraceptive). It was not until 1960 that the same drug was submitted to the FDA for approval specifically as an oral contraceptive. Birth control pills remain one of the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy, with a less than 1 percent failure rate when used correctly, compared to condoms (3 percent), diaphragms (6 percent), spermicide (6 percent), and sponges (9 percent), according to the website Edrugstore.
The first bypass surgery was performed in the United States in the 1960s. The inspiration for the invention of the modern coronary or heart stent came from the failings of angioplasty. In some cases, an artery would close up again after the angioplasty balloon was removed. Doctors wanted a way to keep arteries open permanently. The first stent was inserted in a human coronary artery in 1986, and the first stents were approved for use in the U.S. in 1994.
The IEEE 802.16 antenna can transmit Internet access up to a 30-mile radius at speeds comparable to DSL and cable broadband. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers published a wireless metropolitan area network that functions faster than Wi-Fi. Some scientists say the IEEE 802.16 could end up launching developing nations into the digital age by eliminating the need for wired telecommunications infrastructure.
Biofuels are liquid fuels created from the chemical transformation of plants and other forms of biomass. Currently, two primary biofuels are in commercial production: ethanol (a gasoline alternative commonly produced by the fermentation of plant sugars in corn, sugarcane, and beets) and biodiesel (produced through the processing of vegetable oils from soy, rapeseed, and palm trees). Innovation in biofuels production is facilitating a partial shift from conventional fossil fuel sources. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, America’s biomass resources have the potential to displace more than 30 percent of petroleum fuels by 2030.
Car phones were around in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1983 that Motorola introduced the first widely available handheld cell phone. The DynaTAC 8000x weighed almost 2 pounds and cost $3,995. With today’s cell phones, not only are you connected to everyone you know at a moments notice, but you are also able to connect to emergency services. The technology has advanced to such a degree that a person carrying a cell phone can be located even if the phone is merely turned on. So the question is, what did we do before cell phones?
In 1978 the first satellite in the modern Navstar Global Positioning System, GPS, was launched. (The GPS's precursor, TRANSIT, was developed in the early 1960s to guide nuclear subs.) It was not until 2000, though, that President Clinton granted non-military users access to an unscrambled GPS signal. Now, cheap, handheld GPS units can determine a person's location to within three yards. Today, there are GPS devices in cars, mobile phones, watches, and other products.
Today's electronic commerce (ecommerce) grew out of the Electronic Data Interchange companies used to conduct transactions via computer networks in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, CompuServe created an Electronic Mall for its members, but it wasn't user-friendly. With the arrival of yjr Internet and browsers in the 1990s, ecommerce exploded as part of the dotcom boom. Advanced security software furthered proliferation.
Magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, has become the primary technique in the routine diagnosis of many diseases, and has replaced and sometimes surpassed computed tomography, CT. The MRI is based on a phenomenon of physics discovered in the 1930s called nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, in which magnetic fields and radio waves cause atoms to give off tiny radio signals. Although the first MRI equipment in the health field was available at the beginning of the 1980s, there is disagreement about who invented it. Many believe Raymond Damadian established the machine's medical merit in 1973, when he first used magnetic resonance to discern the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue.