For most people, gadgets like smart phones and wearables are nothing more than the magical little machines that make it easier to do things like Facebook-stalk an ex in that Monday morning meeting. However, they probably don’t know who invented the first smart watch or the person who paved the way for “smart refrigerators” that can tell you when you’re out of milk.
Many of the world’s biggest inventions that have made life possible and transformed entire industries came from the minds of overlooked and underrated geniuses. Meet the men and women who’ve shaped our reliance on and expectations for technology, but aren’t as widely known as they should be.
1. Bertha Benz, Mother of Motoring (1849-1944)
Bertha Benz was the trailblazing wife of the German engineer, Karl Benz, credited today with inventing the first modern car. Karl was apparently a genius engineer, but he didn’t have the same business acumen or vision as his wife (he didn’t even think to fit the vehicle with a fuel tank). Frustrated by his lack of business initiative, she left a note on the kitchen table for him one morning in August 1888, fired up his Model III Patent-Motorwagen’s single-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine, and set off on the first long-distance road trip ever undertaken by car. Along the way, she solved several problems. She used her hairpin to clean a blocked fuel pipe, visited a local apothecary to find a solvent to use as fuel, and even devised the first pair of brake pads with leather soles from a shoemaker. After her outing, the couple made improvements to the brake power and added gear to make it up hills. The car has been transformed further through advancements like Bluetooth tethering, 3D navigation, in-car wireless charging, enhanced safety, and growing infotainment options.
2. Florence Parpart, Creator of The Modern Refrigerator (Early 20th Century)
In 1914, Florence Parpart - a housewife from Hoboken, New Jersey - won a patent for the first modern refrigerator that used electricity, rendering the icebox obsolete. It is believed that she may have used her fiancé’s expertise in electrical circuitry to assist with the first prototype. As an already experienced entrepreneur who attended trade shows and developed her own ad campaigns, she successfully commercialized fridges. Today, we’re not only able to store food safely, but we’ve also increased the lifespan of medication and are able to store biological samples for analysis. Early domestic technology has also led to smart home developments, allowing many of our appliances to be monitored and controlled via mobile technology. A recent report predicts that a typical family home might adopt more than 500 smart devices by 2022.
3. Marie Van Brittan Brown, Home Security Siren (1922-1999)
When police weren’t responding fast enough to emergencies in Queens, Marie Van Brittan Brown took matters into her own hands by inventing the first system for closed-circuit television security. As a nurse who worked odd hours, she was concerned about the recent uptick in crime and wanted to easily identify visitors at the door. She and husband Albert Brown, an electronics technician, devised a mechanism featuring four peep holes and a motorized camera, which could slide up and down to look out each one. The system enabled the Browns to use a television monitor in their bedroom to view the person at the door; a radio-controlled wireless system with a two-way microphone allowed them to communicate with him, too. The surveillance device also gave a homeowner the ability to unlock the door with a remote control, or press a button to alert a nearby neighbor or security firm. Patented in 1969, the Browns’ invention is now the framework for modern home security, crime prevention, and traffic monitoring.
4. Edward Thorp, Father of Wearable Computing (1932-present)
MIT mathematics professor and hedge fund manager Edward Thorp loved beating the odds so much that in 1961 he invented the world’s first wearable computer to help him win at casinos. He had already discovered successful card-counting system for winning at blackjack based on a theory of probability, which he later explained in his book, Beat the Dealer. Next, Thorp wanted to apply mathematics to improve his odds of winning roulette. To do so, Thorp and his co-conspirator, professor Claude Shannon, who had worked on cryptography and code-breaking during World War II, created what is widely regarded as the first wearable computer. In testing his probability theory with the device, (which was apparently not illegal at the time) they discovered that wearers had a 44% edge in the game of roulette. While Thorp and Shannon’s cigarette pack-sized analog device, which the wearer concealed in their shoe, had a single purpose, we now sport a range of more stylish, multifunctional wearables to track information about ourselves.
Want to learn about more innovators? Qualcomm is bringing today’s inventors to the forefront through their #WhyWait Invent-Off web series. Jason Silva, futurist and host of Brain Games, will be hosting the show in which two teams of inventors face off to create something that positively impacts the future. Watch their entire process of invention unfold here.
Nicole Bruce is a Chicago-based writer covering design, technology, art, travel, culture, wellness, and sustainable lifestyles. You can follow her on Twitter @nicoleabruce.