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10 Really Great American Patents

stevenh . . . Comments

The US patent office contains a trove of documentation of technological progress. Searching this data has never been easier. Here are 10 great American patents that made a great difference. In selecting these I stopped about 50 years ago for two reasons (1) historical perspective – it takes time to see the shifts happen and (2) to minimize the inevitable “where is the ___”.

Here, then, are ten really great patents that made a difference. In order of appearance and not importance.

1

Cotton Gin
#72X – 1794

1 Cottongin

No, the ‘Gin’ has nothing to do with drinking. It is a shortened form of ‘engine’ . This device, that separates the cotton from embedded seeds, was instrumental in the explosion of wealth of the United States.


2

Electric Motor
#132 – 1837

Davenport Motor Big

At the heart of the industrial revolution is the ability to take electric power and convert it to mechanical energy. Developed based on the discoveries of Faraday in 1821 and Sturgeon in 1832, Thomas Davenport patented the first commercial electric motor. Unfortunately, because there was no practical electric distribution system in place, Davenport’s invention did not sell and he went bankrupt.

3

Ice Machine
#8080 – 1851

Gorrie Ice Machine

Modern life would be vastly different without refrigeration and air conditioning. The patent that started it all was issued to John Gorrie, a doctor in Florida looking to keep his patients cool. Unable to commercialize his ice making machine, he died four year later at age 54, a ruined man.


4

Improvement in Telegraph
#174465 – 1876

4 Telegraph

By the early 1870’s the telegraph was in widespread use. Many inventors worked on the problem of sending multiple signals over one wire, increasing the scalability of the systems in place. Alexander Bell took the path of sending multiple tones on a wire which evolved into the transmission of human voice. Teamed with Tom Watson he was issued patent 1764465 – the first telephone.

5

Phonograph
#200521 – 1878

5 Phonograph

The ability to store information is so pervasive today that it is hard to remember that the whole concept of ‘a media storage device’ is only 130 years old. Mr. Edison didn’t call it that, but the path from his phonograph to you multi-gig thumb drive is fairly impressive. This meme was developed at the first industrial research facility – Menlo Park, New Jersey, USA. The patent was one of the few inventions of Edison that did not describe an improvement of ‘prior art’, but a new and unique way to record, save and reproduce sounds on demand.

6

Light Bulb
#223898 – 1880

6 Lightbulb

Contrary to popular knowledge, Thomas Edison did not actually invent the light bulb. The patent is for ‘an improvement in Electrical Lamps, and in the method for manufacturing the same’. It was part of the genius of Edison that also created the Edison Electric Light Company (with the backing of some of the most famous financiers of the day) to market not only the light bulb itself, but also the electric power needed by all those bulbs.

7

Electric Adding Machine
#430804 – 1890

7 Hollerithadder

In a certain way, this started the whole computer thing going. An operator would handle about 50-80 cards per minute (say 1 per second). Hollerith electric tabulating system, including tabulating machine, card reader, pantograph punching machine, and sorting machine, 1890, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.


8

Airplane
#821393 – 1906

8 Flyingmachine

Of all of the dreams of humanity throughout the ages, the thought of traveling though the air seemed the most fantastical. Truly a multitude of people spent countless years thinking, building, testing and ultimately failing in the efforts to create a heaver-than-air flying machine.

9

Sliced Bread
#1867377 – 1932

9 Slicedbread

This is the Main American Standard against which all other inventions are based. To say something is “the best thing since sliced bread”, is high praise indeed. With this in mind, the first “Machine for slicing an entire loaf of bread at a single operation” must be the most important invention on this list.

10

Pending 10th Item

The tenth item is currently pending – tell us what you think should be here.

Contributor: stevenh



  • KMac

    i dont know where i would be without sliced bread ;)

  • Is this a list of things invented in America, by Americans or just things that have, at one point, been patented in America?

    Quite a good list though, you can’t really argue that any of these don’t belong on the list.

  • lola

    I read that a Swiss fellow discovered Velcro.
    http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mvelcro.html

  • DiscHuker

    i just finished making a sandwich. sliced bread is very important indeed.

    very interesting to look at the exponential growth of patents on the list. if i am reading it right, and i like to think that i am, there was 43 years and only a difference in the patent number of 60. but for the last two, a 23 year difference, there is a gap of over 850,000.

    i wonder if the ginsu knife or the pocket fisherman is in there somewhere.

  • lola: thanks – you are right – I have removed velcro and am now taking suggestions for a replacement :)

  • Ginger Lee

    The sewing machine by Elias Howe.

  • Randall

    jfrater:

    Telephone? Turnstile? Typewriter? Twizzlers?

  • Ginger Lee

    From wikipedia:

    Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the sewing machine. Many other people, including Walter Hunt, had worked on the idea of such a machine before him. However, Howe refined these ideas into a functional machine and on September 10, 1846, he was awarded the first United States patent (#4750) for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design.

  • SoCalJeff

    Air Conditioning.

    I think patent is owned by Carrier Corp. Without Air Conditioning much of the Southern and West expansion in the USA would not have occurred (or at least occurred to the degree it did during the 70s, 80s, 90s). In fact, Air Conditioning is given as one reason for Florida’s rapid growth.

  • Pops28

    I would have to go with the transistor. This is the heart of all modern electronics. Not sure if the patents on it are too murky for this list or not but Bell Labs is credited with creating the first practical transistor.

  • Theodore

    This patent is pure genius, by a 5-year old no less:

    Method of swinging on a swing
    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6368227.html

    “The user may even choose to produce a Tarzan-type yell while swinging in the manner described, which more accurately replicates swinging on vines in a dense jungle forest. Actual jungle forestry is not required.”

  • kiwiboi

    “I read that a Swiss fellow discovered Velcro.”
    “I have removed velcro”

    jfrater – Velcro is patented in the USA so – strictly speaking – it does qualify here (even though it seems to have a prior Swiss patent).

    I think the title and description of this list are, therefore, a little confusing/imprecise.

  • babygirl2882

    I don’t really have anything to add! Very interesting list I love learning things at 6:30am :)

  • DanOhh

    Number Ten should either be the Propiel Pocket Fisherman or “We’ll be back to pick you up later” Mr. Microphone.

  • john doan

    knowledge is power

  • SlickWilly

    Hmm…interesting list. I’m not sure what number 10 should be, seeing as how I’m a bit sketchy on the whole “patent” thing. I guess I would say the telephone? Or the internet? Does that even have a patent? What about the atomic bomb? Hehe…I kid.

  • chris

    how about the iPod? ……….lol

  • Yaji

    microwave oven

  • Erin

    Printing Press !!! 15th or 16th century I believe

  • bachell55

    10th item hot water shower

  • Erin

    Oh wait this is American… I’m Canadian I have no idea.

  • chillipacker

    global warming

  • Yaji

    Defibrillator!

  • mr_evilmonkey

    my vote for number ten the Harley-Davidson V-twin motorcycle

  • Erin, I think the printing press was invented in Germany.
    By Gutenberg I think. I payed attention in school that day.
    (Very unusual for me)Maybe that’s why I remember.

  • mike

    What about the modern tamper resistant twist off bottle cap. Which just so happened to be invented by my wife’s grandfather

  • 666

    I will second post #24

  • stevenh

    Dear ListVersers,

    To clarify the criteria I used:
    1) The patent must have been approved by the USPO (United States Patent Office)
    2) The approval was more than 50 years ago.
    3) The patent had to have ‘made a difference’

    /Stevenh

    ps I agree that the transistor meets all of these tests. I did not include it because by itself, a transistor is not that much fun. All the items chosen are ‘stand alone’ products.

  • stevenh

    oops type
    it is USPTO not USPO

  • Wikipedia seems to suggest that the first transistor patent was filed in Canada by Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld on October 22, 1925 – that would exclude it from this list :)

  • OK everybody how about this one. The Zipper!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zipper

  • Sky

    Also, Sir Alexander Grahame Bell Patented the Telephone in Canada, and registered it with the Halifax, NS branch of OPIC/CIPO (http://patents.ic.gc.ca/cipo/cpd/welcome.html)
    He is From Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada

  • Randall

    When do we get around to invading Canada? Is that soon?

  • Dave

    I was thinking the AC motor – but you already have the DC motor on there. What about AC current itself? Surely there is a patent for transmission of AC power over long distances… This is the invention that made electrical power useful and practical.

  • marqueemark

    the fire truck

  • Yogi Barrister

    For your consideration:
    Typewriter
    Steamboat
    Reaping machine
    Colt Revolver

  • copperdragon

    steam engine (used for trains and early cars)
    television
    radio

  • Randall

    copperdragon:

    Three strikes and you’re out, I’m afraid….

    The steam engine (in modern times) was the invention of James Watt… a Scot. (The ancient Greeks also invented it, but never put it to practical use).

    Television was not really the invention of any one man so much as it was a series of parallel projects independent of one another, that arrived at more or less the same destination. For TV, however, we mainly have a Russian and a Brit to thank, in a sense. (Loosely).

    Radio is the invention of an Italian… Marconi.

    Try again…

  • Csimmons

    Great list, I honestly don’t know what to put at #10 though.

  • Marco

    I’m not sure if it’s patented, but the Americans have certainly reinvented and boosted unashamed megalomania.

  • CacyeP

    The post-it :)

  • JJ

    When i was a kid i asked my grandmother (90 at the time ) what she thought was the greatest invention in her lifetime, You Know what she said ,the mop !!!

  • SlickWilly

    Marco: And the Europeans improved upon the original design. :)

  • SlickWilly

    Seriously…what’s wrong with saying that you’re better than everyone else if its true? :P

  • miller

    suprised no one said the condom or birth control.

  • Phillies

    the traffic light

  • otay

    electric vibrator??? lol :D

  • otay

    er, maybe that wasnt american.

  • frozenmidwest

    pop-top cans

    plastic wrap

  • fivestring63

    Microwave ovens or cell phones.

  • CRE

    Marco-I agre completely, we Americans can put Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Alexander the Great, and any number of Pharoahs to shame in the megalomania department, right? I mean, we’re so bad, we even had to come up with Megalomaniacs Anonymous to deal with. I know it’s true, I saw it on tv. Brain (of Pinky & the Brain fame) goes there. As for American patents, probably the Colt Revolver of Winchester Repeater would be my vote, also, possibly, the Gatlin Gun (which I think was American). Also, although there is no patent for it, Tex-Mex food is our best contribution to the world. MMMMMMM, tacos.

  • chsrocket47

    wasnt the assembly line patented?

  • The 10th should be….. STARBUCKS!!!! I know it’s not patented (SUE ME!) but I didn’t know what else to put.

  • stevenh

    Re #47 Otay:

    Please refer to US Patent number 2005/0228218
    “Double Anchor Strapless Dildo”
    Relation to Prior art “…none known to be strapless for female-to-female use…”

    From the abstract as published by the United States Patent Office “…having a vaginal anchor and a rectal anchor for reliably rigid and gratifyingly insertion into a first female to support a penal-like dildo for being gratifyingly inserted into the vagina of a second female in a manner taught by this invention…”

    I suppose this may, in fact, qualify as a “Really Great American Patent”

    I suppose it’s a good thing that I can’t attach a graphic of the patent ;)

  • Nightstalker

    How about the A/C generator or the Tesla Coil, both by Nikola Tesla. I’d say to add his lightning machine if it was real, that would be pretty cool.

  • stevenh

    BTW:
    I’m not making this up…
    See summary [section 0005], page 3.

    http://www.google.com/patents?id=aE6WAAAAEBAJ&dq=2005/0228218

  • Bad News

    @stevenh, #54:”…to support a penal-like…”

    Is someone being punished with this thing??

  • stevenh

    Bad News:
    Check the link, scroll to page 3, read section 0005.

    Oh, did we just come up with a new list – “10 Best Porn in Patents”?

  • Dustfinger

    The cotton gin didn’t just cause explosive wealth, it also caused explosive slave trading, as people ‘needed’ more slaves to pick more cotton.

  • sdggrant

    Actually Dustfinger…The Cotton Gin required less salves because it was much more efficient than having slaves pick cotton by hand

  • stevenh

    Actually sdggrant… The Cotton Gin has nothing to do with the picking of cotton. It was used to clean the cotton from the embedded seeds.
    Dustfinger is, in a very real sense, correct. Many slaves that were tasked with cleaning cotton were re-assigned to the fields. As more cotton could be processed during the harvest season, it became more viable to plant more fields.

  • Insaniac

    Idk if anyone else has noticed this but in the heading for this list you have “Here are 10 great American parents”. I think a simple typo of course. I just suggest fixing it.

  • TheDragon

    So many things could be added here, but this list would be a lot less “crappy” if it included toilet paper…

  • Hannah!

    Bubblers, for sure.

    Nice list!! =)

  • Cyn

    62. Insaniac

    oops! fixed. thanx

  • Birdieguy

    How about contact lenses? Others I’ve thought of are television, microwave, and of course the Internet.

  • babygirl2882

    35. marqueemark
    I agree the fire truck!! :)

  • GEEK

    MICROSOFT………………..imagin PC wdout XP\Vista

  • CRSN

    Number 10 should be “Red Necks”, because America is full of them.

  • What processes were there in creating the microchip? Is there one single patent? I would think something computer related would be very important, and I don’t think that hole punching thing counts in the importance of modern computers.

  • Metalwrath

    Yeah the colt revolver! Cowboys could then kill up to 6 indians without even reloading! ^^ Its the invention which conquered the west!

  • SlickWilly

    CRSN: Ooh, burn. I mean really, that was not only scathing but witty and clever to boot. The way you took a list of patents and turned it into something having to do with people and how America has a lot of them. Really, that was just brilliant. Really.

  • Lisa

    The reaper – excellent tool and the most effective when it was made for cutting grains out of the fields. Plus, it’s pretty cool to look at.

  • Jim

    Airplane?

  • juan

    jim _ 74·..airplane is already on the list…should read it first

  • Mom424

    I think the electric lightbulb is a fine choice, and it would make Romero happy.:) It was patented by Edison, but I think the actual work was done by a black fellow hired by him. His name was Lewis Latimer.

  • stevenh

    Mom424:
    You may in fact be correct. It is the name that is on the patent that I listed – the only ‘fair way’, given the many disputes in this field.

  • eltrut

    “Radio is the invention of an Italian… Marconi.”

    Nope…Nikola Tesla invented it (but I’m not sure if he was a US citizen at the time.

  • eltrut

    Yep, Tesla became a US citizen in 1891 and filed his basic radio patent in 1896. This should be #10 :)

  • Randall

    eltrut:

    Not another Tesla nut. Okay, eltrut… let’s get something straight.

    A) Yes, Nikola Tesla deserves to be acknowledged for his ample, if often bizarre and unstable genius. And yes, he *did* do pioneering work with radio. BUT…

    B) Marconi is generally acknowledged as the “inventor” of radio for the simple fact that Marconi didn’t merely tinker with the technology–he developed it and commercialized it. It isn’t enough, in other words, to simply do some experiments, do some theoretical work, or even apply for a patent. An inventor must *get his invention out in the world* and make people realize it exists. Tesla had *zero* business sense and almost never managed to accomplish this relatively simple feat–of making a commercial success, even in a minor sense, of his inventions. Alternating current was one of his few high marks where he actually managed it.

    C) In any case, Marconi and Tesla were working at exactly the same time. At most we can acknowledge Tesla’s work–in general we can say he was an accomplished engineer and scientist who did a lot of pioneering work with radio, electricity and magnetism. But handing him the title of “inventor of radio” goes a bit too far, when he did none of the things that Marconi did to exploit the new medium.

    D) Had Tesla’s work really been substantial and really pre-dated Marconi’s, history would have acknowledged Tesla as the inventor of radio. But it did not and does not. Reasons for this already given.

    What we can say is that to *some* extent the history of radio’s development is similar to television’s: a few individuals whose work more or less paralleled, arriving at the same result. But with one major exception: In the end, with radio, there WAS one figure who stands out at as the developer, popularizer, exploiter–and yes, with all this taken into consideration, the *inventor*—and that’s Marconi.

  • heavybison

    4. Improvement in Telegraph

    The real credit for this lies somewhere else: Check this out..
    http://www.qsl.net/vu2msy/JCBOSE.htm

  • Egg

    Oh me oh my, the aero-plane! Props to the States for that little bad boy alone. Sliced bread… that’s an invention that smacks of the American dream.

  • Egg

    Mom24: It wouldn’t surprise me, Edison was a notorious Kleptomaniac when it came to other people’s inventions ;)

  • Che

    Digital watches !

  • eltrut

    “history would have acknowledged Tesla as the inventor of radio.”

    History does acknowledge this.

    Cheers!

    Eltrut AKA “another Tesla nut”

  • Randall

    eltrut:

    “History does acknowledge this.”

    Oh, it does?

    How?

    Where is this acknowledged? Show me.

  • shortomoney

    penicillan

  • sweatyself

    John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow didn’t he? and Benjamin Holt invented the tractor? Those revolutionized agriculture, and to me, food is pretty important.

  • DrClifford

    What do you mean “The 10th item is currently pending”??

    In post #28 you stated the second criteria as “The approval was more than 50 years ago.”

    Im seeing some inconsistencies.

  • reerr

    In this post have a error

    The airplane was created by Santos Dummond, a Brazilian.
    So the Airplane patent is from Brazil

  • Aerospace Engineer

    Hiram Stevens Maxim actually invented the first airplane. Just like Edison is widely known to have invented the light-bulb (as you correctly point out it was just an improvement to a Nikola Tesla invention), Maxim flew a plane in 1889, nearly 15 years before the Wright brothers.

  • ciucinciu

    Barbed Wire shloud be on the list

  • Mike

    #10 Video Games

  • PoorMe

    Why not nature itself?
    Western world just take plants from countries like Nepal, Bhutan etc. and patent them and charge them for using their own natural gifts. Many of crops have been taken and it’s gene been copied and charged. So, why not nature dude. Patent is evil

  • base

    I believe you left out Nikola Tesla’s influence whom is responsible for 60% of the list…

  • Xthye

    its still pending

  • zapbranagan

    How about the ELECTRIC guitar?

    Les Paul, Rickenbacher, Fender? Not sure who has the first patent, but it’s a sweet invention.

  • The Quickness

    Its simple what should be #10. Alcohol. Most of the people in the world wouldn’t know what they would do with out it.

  • sdavis

    Internal combustion engine.

    And please – spare us all the faux indignation from eco-nuts about the environment, etc. If you don’t think it’s so great then try giving it up for a week; and taking public transportation while leaving your car at home doesn’t count.

    The possibilities and prosperity the IC Engine has brought to the world are incalculable.

    • Thomas

      Invented through a stage of several projects eventually first build and sold by the German inventor Nikolaus Otto. The car was invented by Karl Benz, from Mercedes-Benz (Mercedes was the name of Benz' financier, used as a token of gratitude)

  • sdavis

    But Quickness has a strong #10 also: Cheers!

  • YOHEI

    GUNS!!!!!

  • lightbulboverhead

    How about the integrated circuit, which made personal computers and all our electronic “toys” possible?

  • Steve

    U.S. Patent No. 4,022,227.

    Greatest. Thing. Ever.

    (http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2004/10/the_combover.html)

  • Cernunnos

    american patent-offices are pathetic. maybe not then, but they are now. previously they required a model of the thing the patent was intended for, but not anymore they do.

    a child even got a patent once, for what? would be an interesting question, but nearly as interesting (and scary) as the answer. he patended a way swing on a swingset by pulling on the supports to make yourself swing side-to-side whilst going forward. the scary thing is that now he can legally go to anyone doing this and demand royalties.

  • Cernunnos

    and whats with naming all kinds of things that cant even be considered remotely american?

  • danielle

    how about Michael Jackson’s dancing shoe for the anti- gravity a.k.a. the lean for np. 10? :)

  • XeroKewl

    #86 Randall.
    you shut eltrut up almost 2 years ago. i think he’s looking for a tesla website.

  • abraxas

    aspirin! its extracted from a tropical tree, but I wonder if it’s patented in the us

  • marc t

    the car set us free. that is # ten

  • Definitely the transistor, since its been so seriously ommited before :)

  • Bob

    I suggest Robert Goddard's patent for the multistage rocket. Although the rocket is an ancient Chinese invention, primitive rockets were little more than fancy decorations because of their inefficency. Goddard used nozzles to increase thrust efficiency. He invented liquid fueled rockets and inertial navigation systems. He invented the first shoulder fired military rocket.

    Goddard refused to be stopped by tuberculosis and public ridicule. He proved that a rocket could navigate in space, even though the New York Times opined that Goddard " … seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

    Goddard's rocketry led to ballistic missiles and GPS navigation. Satellites launched by multistage rockets provide instantaneous worldwide communication. Military satellites have won wars. Weather satellites track deadly storms in real time. TV satellites let the whole world watch the Olympics and the World Cup. Goddard's multistage rocket is the reason we have the ISS, the Hubble Telescope, and that men walked on the moon.

    Beyond that, Robert Goddard permanently established the coolness of his multistage rocket the day after Apollo 11 launched and the New York Times retracted its original editorial.

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  • Isaac

    the flush toilet has to be number 10. Everything just smelt like @$$ before the flush toilet.

  • chris

    alternating current by tesla changed the way we all lived

  • guest

    What about Duct Tape? You can make boats,wallets, bridges, and other things out of it.

  • Jon

    Silicon Semi-conductor, most influential invention in the past century

  • Jon

    Silicon Transistor*

  • condolingas rice

    from 1794 to 1837, there were 60 patents between those two, then by 1851, 13 years later, we had over 8000 patents, 1876, 174000 patents. seeing these numbers increase exponentially in the decreasing time spans is amazing

  • Anonymous
  • HumbertHumbert

    The almighty fleshlight!

  • JRowe

    I would say the Tenth invention should be portable batteries. We just can’t prosper in life without them.

  • carlos

    Zenith Transoceanic Radio. One of the few radios capable to attain foreign broadcast during Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.
    Unfortunately, by then I had no money to buy one and today it seems ipossible to get.

  • ASF

    The cotton gin did nothing but add to slavery. And yes, it make slave owners rich

  • Best Rated Sewing Machines

    Next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won’t disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, Yes, it was my choice to read through, however I actually believed you would probably have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you can fix if you weren’t too busy searching for attention.

  • Best Rated Sewing Machines

    You need to be a part of a contest for one of the most useful blogs online. I’m going to highly recommend this website!

  • Victoria

    THE SAFETY PIN, Walter Hunt 1849.
    Don’t forget the zipper!

  • NewSavior666

    the camcorder, without it i couldnt make youtube vids

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