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Elon Musk's 10 greatest inventions changing the world

Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com

Futurist extraordinaire

Thomas Edison and Elon Musk
Universal History Archive | Getty Images; Getty Images

Elon Musk may just be the 21st century's Thomas Edison.

The prolific inventor's inventions have won him multiple entrepreneur and innovator-of-the-year awards — and are a regular topic of discussion among both business leaders and consumers.

While some of the companies Musk has founded are more famous than others, he has been actively inventing things since before he was a teenager. Early efforts in software and software companies have since evolved into consumer products and mass-transportation visions. And although some of those visions may seem impossible at first glance, Musk's track record has muted many doubters. His breakthrough thinking has helped him amass a net worth around $13.5 billion.

But there's more to Musk than just the companies you've heard of. Here's a look at his wide range of revolutionary ideas, patents, products and companies.

—By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
Posted 14 November 2015

Tesla Motors, electric car

Source: Tesla Motors

These days, it's impossible not to think of Musk without quickly thinking of Tesla, the publicly traded electric-car company whose stock has increased nearly 700 percent in the last 2.5 years to just under $213 a share at press time. Despite reporting third-quarter results that missed Wall Street expectations, the company boasts revenues of $1.24 billion and claims strong guidance for future deliveries.

There's plenty of demand for the cars, especially the upcoming Model 3 (which boasts a range of 200 miles and will start at $35,000), but the company continues to struggle with manufacturing enough cars to keep up with that demand. That is why it plans to sell $500 million shares of stock to fund capital expenditures.

SpaceX, Falcon rocket

An unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., June 28, 2015. The rocket exploded about two minutes after liftoff, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station, NASA said.
Mike Brown | Reuters

Musk's aerospace company may be just as famous as his automobiles. Founded in 2002 to help reduce the cost of space transportation and enable the colonization of Mars, SpaceX's Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets are designed to be reusable. The company has flown six cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station and has been awarded a contract by NASA to develop a spacecraft to take crew members to and from the ISS.

The company (which is privately held) did suffer a setback earlier this year when one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded after liftoff. It has since suspended flights, giving it time to redesign the two-foot metal bar that failed and, according to Musk, caused the explosion.

X.com (PayPal) e-payments

Source: CNBC

In 1999, Musk co-founded a company called X.com, which focused on financial services and email payments. A year later, X.com merged with Confinity and adopted the name of that company's best-known service, PayPal. The two technologies created a powerhouse that led the way in online payments, which was eventually bought by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk pocketed $165 million from that deal.

Hyperloop

ET3 Hyperloop concept
Source: ET3

Musk's latest idea might be his most ambitious. This transportation system, introduced in 2013 and still in the formulative stages, aims to allow commuters to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes or less — faster than a commercial flight.

The rail system would work in a tube with extremely low air pressure, which would theoretically reduce drag and enable higher speeds at up to 800 miles per hour with lower power consumption. That full vision is still a long way from reality, though. The company's first venture is scheduled to begin construction next year, with a 5-mile loop around Quay Valley, California. The biggest speed bump: the cost of the land and technology to make this a reality.

Zip2, online city guides

Kimball Musk
Wikiupdate1019 | Wikimedia Commons

Musk's first Web software company, founded with his brother using money loaned by their father, was aimed toward helping the newspaper industry put together 'city guides' for online users. After considering, and ultimately rejecting, a merger with CitySearch (IACI), Zip2 was bought by Compaq for $307 million in 1999. Musk received $22 million from the sale.

SolarCity, solar-power systems

An employee for SolarCity installs solar panels on the roof of a home in Palo Alto, Calif.
Tony Avelar | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images

Co-founded in 2006 by Musk and his cousins, SolarCity has since grown to become the second-largest provider of solar-power systems in the country, with revenues of $102.8 million in the most recent quarter. While it's centered in California, it also provides installations in select areas of 14 other states (and the District of Columbia).

It's in the process of creating storage systems letting people tap into power produced by solar panels at night. The company is also working with Tesla to offer free solar-powered charging stations to owners of the vehicles traveling Route 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles or back.

Electric Jet

Source: AeroAstroMIT | YouTube

Musk hasn't officially started working on this project, but last year at MIT's Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium, he said he was "toying" with the concept. Musk also has mused on The Colbert Report about the opportunity to have a "vertical takeoff and landing electric supersonic jet," which uses electric motors to drive a fan, which in turn propels the aircraft. It would not require a long runway, so airports could be smaller.

Web-based phone calls

Source: U.S. Patent Office

Back in 1997, Musk had an idea about allowing computers to call land lines (something he secured a patent for in 2001). The idea was a bit less intricate than what we use today with Skype, though. Instead, the idea went, users could click on a company's contact information online and then calls would be routed to the company via a call center.

Location-specific searches

Source: Google Maps

In the early days of the Internet, finding a business that was close to you wasn't the priority it is today. Musk, in 1998, thought it might be someday, though. His idea was to create a system that initially searched for results in the geographic area closest to you, then automatically widening that area (meaning the user wouldn't have to refine the search) until there were enough results.

Blastar, video game

Source: iTunes

Before he popularized electric cars and began planning the colonization of Mars, Musk was a kid who liked video games. So, at the age of 12, he made his own. That's impressive enough, but Musk being Musk, he sold the game to a magazine for roughly $500. Curious what the pre-pubescent inventor put together? You can play a Web-based version of Blastar today.