American Inventors You’ve Never Heard Of

Edison did it. Eastman did it. And so did Steve Jobs.

They invented products that changed our lives.

But for every well-known inventor there are many other, less recognizable individuals whose innovative products have greatly impacted our world.

Fifteen of those trailblazing men and women — both past and present — were recently honored for their unique contributions in a special ceremony at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, which is nestled in a corner of the vast atrium of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office building in Alexandria, Virginia.

Augmented reality

Stan Honey was honored for inventing a graphics systems that makes it easier for television viewers around the world to see key moments during live sporting events… such as sailing, car racing and American football.

“What we do is we superimpose graphic elements like yellow lines into the real world, correctly positioned so that they can reveal something that’s important to a game that is otherwise hard to see,” he said.

The graphics make those yellow lines look like they’re actually on the field, Honey explained, but “they’re keyed underneath the athletes… so it looks like it’s on the grass, but in fact if you were in the stadium of course, it’s not actually there!”

In sports like football, Honey pointed out, the graphics are used “for the ‘first down’ line.” In baseball, to show “where the balls go through the strike zone or miss the strike zone,” and in sailing they’re used “to show who’s ahead, who’s behind, where the laylines are, what the wind direction is.”  

“Any sport that has something that’s really important and hard to see can benefit from graphics that are inserted into the real world,” he added.

WATCH: Julie Taboh’s video report

Lasting beauty

“Curiosity and exploration are the essential starting points of innovation,” says inductee Sumita Mitra. She credits her life-long love of learning to her parents and teachers; “They taught me how to learn… and if you know how to learn, you can learn anything.”

Mitra put her learning skills to full use when she discovered that using nanoparticles can strengthen dental composites while helping teeth maintain their natural look. She was looking for “beauty that lasts,” she said, and decided “nanoparticle technology would be the right ticket to create something to meet these objectives.”

Rini Paiva, who oversees the selection committee at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, noted that more than 600 million restorations take place every year using Mitra’s technology.

Gallery of icons

The annual selection process is very competitive, say Paiva, “because there are a lot of terrific inventors out there and our job is really to look for the ones who have had the most impact on our world.”

Each year, as a select group of inventors are inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, they’re presented with hexagonal-shaped plaques inscribed with their name, invention and patent number. Those simple but symbolic awards become part of a permanent collection that now stands at more than 560.

Five of the 2018 inductees were recognized for their contributions posthumously, their awards accepted by their respective representatives.

Temperature controls

Mary Engle Pennington, who died at the age of 80 in 1952, was a pioneer in the safe preservation, handling, storage and transportation of perishable foods, which impacted the health and well-being of generations of Americans. She was recognized for her numerous accomplishments, including her discovery of a way to refrigerate train cars, allowing perishable foods to be safely moved from one place to another.

In 1895, Warren Johnson introduced the first multi-zone automatic temperature control system commercially feasible for widespread application. The Johnson System of Temperature Regulation was used in commercial buildings, offices, and schools, and also installed in the U.S. Capitol Building, the Smithsonian, the New York Stock Exchange, West Point Military Academy, and the home of Andrew Carnegie. In 2008, it was designated an ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

Johnson’s innovations and the company he co-founded, Johnson Controls, helped launch the multi-billion-dollar building controls industry.

The real deal

Established in 1973 in partnership with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum provides numerous displays and interactive exhibits on patents and the patent process, and the inductees and their patented inventions.  

There’s a model of Thomas Edison’s light bulb, George Eastman’s hand-held cameras, and replicas of Ford Mustangs from 1965 and 2015 — split down the middle to show how the iconic car has changed over 50 years.

Visitors can also learn about trademarks, (think NIKE’s Swoosh logo), how to detect the real from the fake, (counterfeit designer handbags and accessories were hard to tell apart from the genuine article), and match characters, colors, and even sounds, to their respective brands.

Future inventors

Rini Paiva notes that while the museum is dedicated to honoring the greatest innovative minds from the past and present, it is also committed to its educational intiatives through its partnership with 1,300 schools and districts nationwide.

“Our museum does share the stories of the inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, but beyond that it really shows people what we can do through our education programs, really in encouraging young people to pursue STEM fields, and also in the power of intellectual property.”

Education merges with the symbolic presence of some of the world’s most innovative minds whose examples of American ingenuity serve to inform and inspire others who may follow in their paths.

Canada’s Trudeau Talks Tech at MIT Gathering

Canadian computer scientists helped pioneer the field of artificial intelligence before it was a buzzword, and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hoping to capitalize on their intellectual lead.

Trudeau has become a kind of marketer-in-chief for Canada’s tech economy ambitions, accurately explaining the basics of machine learning as he promotes a national plan he says will “secure Canada’s foothold in AI research and training.”

“Tech giants have taken notice, and are setting up offices in Canada, hiring Canadian experts, and investing time and money into applications that could be as transformative as the internet itself,” Trudeau wrote in a guest editorial published this week in the Boston Globe.

Trudeau has been taking that message on the road and is likely to emphasize it again Friday when he addresses a gathering of tech entrepreneurs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His visit to the MIT campus headlines an annual meeting of the school’s Solve initiative, which connects innovators with corporate, government and academic resources to help them tackle world problems.

Trudeau isn’t the only head of state talking up AI — France’s Emmanuel Macron and China’s Xi Jinping are among the others — but his deep-in-the-weeds approach has caught U.S. tech companies’ attention in contrast to President Donald Trump, whose administration “got off to a little bit of a slow start” in expressing interest, said Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT professor who directs the school’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

“AI is the most important technology for the next decade or two,” said Brynjolfsson, who attended the Trump White House’s first AI summit last week. “It’s going to completely transform the economy and our society in lots of ways. It’s a huge mistake for countries’ leaders not to take it seriously.”

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Uber and Samsung have all opened AI research hubs centered in Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton, drawn in large part by decades of academic research into “deep learning” algorithms that helped pave the way for today’s digital voice assistants, self-driving technology and photo-tagging services that can recognize a friend’s face.

Canada’s reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants is also helping, as is Trudeau’s enthusiasm about the AI economy, Brynjolfsson said.

“When a national leader says AI is a priority, I think you get more creative, smart young people who will be taking it seriously,” he said.

AI is an “easy and recognizable shorthand” for the digital economy Trudeau hopes to foster, said Luke Stark, a Dartmouth College sociologist from Canada who studies the history and philosophy of technology.

A former schoolteacher, Trudeau is “smart enough to know when to learn something so he can talk about it intelligently in a way that helps educate people,” Stark said.

Stark said that also allows Trudeau to “push into the background some of the less high-tech, less fashionable elements of the Canadian economy,” such as the extraction of oil and gas.

The visit comes amid talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico over whether to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiators have now gone past an informal Thursday deadline set by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, increasing the likelihood that talks could drag into 2019.

Inventors Honored in Hall of Fame Special Ceremony

Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Apple founder Steve Jobs are some of America’s best known inventors. But there are other, less recognizable individuals whose innovative products have greatly impacted our world. More than a dozen of them were recently honored for their unique contributions in a special ceremony at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

In the Name of Safety: NYC Tradition – Blessing of the Bikes

For almost 20 years, cyclists have gathered in New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for what might seem like an unusual ceremony the blessing of the bikes. Held the day before the city’s Five Boro Bike Tour, the ceremony is meant to bring luck and safety to those who travel around the Big Apple on a bike. Evgeny Maslov has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

Silicon Valley Startup Peddles 3-D-printed Bike

After a career that included helping Alphabet’s Google build out data centers and speeding packages for Amazon.com to customers, Jim Miller is doing what many Silicon Valley executives do after stints at big companies: finding more time to ride his bike.

But this bike is a little different. Arevo, a startup with backing from the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency and where Miller recently took the helm, has produced what it says is the world’s first carbon fiber bicycle with 3-D-printed frame.

Arevo is using the bike to demonstrate its design software and printing technology, which it hopes to use to produce parts for bicycles, aircraft, space vehicles and other applications where designers prize the strength and lightness of so-called “composite” carbon fiber parts but are put off by the high-cost and labor-intensive process of making them.

Arevo on Thursday raised $12.5 million in venture funding from a unit of Japan’s Asahi Glass, Sumitomo’s Sumitomo Corp. of the Americas and Leslie Ventures. Previously, the company raised $7 million from Khosla Ventures, which also took part in Thursday’s funding, and an undisclosed sum from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital fund backed by the CIA.

Traditional carbon fiber bikes are expensive because workers lay individual layers of carbon fiber impregnated with resin around a mold of the frame by hand. The frame then gets baked in an oven to melt the resin and bind the carbon fiber sheets together.

Arevo’s technology uses a “deposition head” mounted on a robotic arm to print out the three-dimensional shape of the bicycle frame. The head lays down strands of carbon fiber and melts a thermoplastic material to bind the strands, all in one step.

The process involves almost no human labor, allowing Arevo to build bicycle frames for $300 in costs, even in pricey Silicon Valley.

“We’re right in line with what it costs to build a bicycle frame in Asia,” Miller said. “Because the labor costs are so much lower, we can re-shore the manufacturing of composites.”

While Miller said Arevo is in talks with several bike manufacturers, the company eventually hopes to supply aerospace parts. Arevo’s printing head could run along rails to print larger parts and would avoid the need to build huge ovens to bake them in.

“We can print as big as you want – the fuselage of an aircraft, the wing of an aircraft,” Miller said.

Cryptocurrency May Fast-Track Solar Power in Moldova

Moldova, a small, landlocked country in eastern Europe, imports three-quarters of its energy and has seen its energy costs rise by more than half in the past five years.

But that could soon change, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which this year will launch an innovative effort to power a Moldovan university with cryptocurrency-funded solar energy.

The initiative with Sun Exchange, a South African solar power marketplace, will allow people to buy solar cells using SolarCoin, a cryptocurrency launched by blockchain start-up ElectriCChain, and then lease them to the Technical University of Moldova, one of the country’s largest universities.

Crowd-fund project

The idea is to find new sources of finance to “help buildings go green overnight,” in this instance with rooftop solar panels, said Dumitru Vasilescu, a program manager with UNDP in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries.

“One of the biggest obstacles to countries investing in renewable energy is a lack of finance, as you often have to wait 10 to 15 years before you get a return on your investment,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the university will get a full 1 megawatt of energy installed in the summer, he said, as a result of the crowd-funding effort.

Owners of the solar cells, in turn, will receive SolarCoins as soon as the university produces energy, earning interest of about 4 percent on their investment, Vasilescu added.

Moldova currently has more than 10,000 square meters of unused rooftop space on public buildings that could be potentially used for such efforts, he said.

Key technology

Blockchain, which first emerged as the system underpinning the virtual currency bitcoin, is a digital shared record of transactions maintained by a network of computers on the internet, without the need of a centralized authority.

It has become a key technology in both the public and private sectors, given its ability to record and keep track of assets or transactions without the need for middlemen.

Research firm IDC estimates global investment in blockchain will more than double in 2018 to $2.1 billion from $945 million last year, most of it for banking. IDC expects “strong, double-digit growth” in the energy space between 2016 and 2021.

Kevin Treco, an associate director at the Carbon Trust, an environmental consultancy, said blockchain-based technologies could significantly change energy use in countries striving to decentralize power and boost renewable sources.

Renewable energy fast

In Moldova, for example, cryptocurrency-funded renewable energy could reduce the country’s dependence on energy imports such as oil and gas from Russia, Vasilescu said.

Darius Nassiry, a senior research associate at the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, predicted that most of the growth in cryptocurrency-funded energy would occur in the developing world.

“They have faster-growing energy needs — and a more accommodating legal and regulatory environment towards such innovations,” he said by email.

But a lack of understanding on how blockchain applications such as cryptocurrencies work could slow their growth in the energy sector, he added.

For Abraham Cambridge, the founder and CEO of Sun Exchange, the solar currency exchange system “has all the right incentives in place.”

“It reduces the costs of going solar dramatically for the end user and makes it easy for anyone in the world to own a solar cell anywhere in the world and, from it, make a steady source of sunlight-powered income,” he said in a statement.

Blockchain is also being used in the energy sector to facilitate carbon trading, with U.S. computing giant IBM announcing this week that it will partner with Veridium Labs, an environmental tech startup, to turn carbon credits into digital tokens.

If the Moldovan solar currency pilot is successful, UNDP plans to replicate it in neighboring countries, said Vasilescu, adding that it could “revolutionize the renewable energy market for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.”

Ohio Capital Launches Unique ‘Smart City’ Operating System

Ohio’s capital city unveiled an operating system Thursday that will gather data for its pioneering smart city transportation project.

Columbus beat out six other mid-sized cities in 2016 to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, a contest aimed at encouraging innovative ideas for moving people and goods more quickly, cheaply and efficiently.

The effort is supported by a $40 million federal grant and $10 million from billionaire investor Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. It has the potential to reduce collisions, speed first responder response times, curb freeway delays and get products to consumers faster.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said launching the Smart Columbus Operating System is a major milestone on Columbus’ smart city journey, allowing officials to better analyze, interpret and share data that will help solve critical challenges and inspire innovation.

But the Democrat said the ultimate goal is to make life better.

“Fundamental to ‘becoming smart’ as a city is discovering how to use data to improve city services and quality of life for residents,” he said. “When we apply data to the challenges we experience as a city, we can transform outcomes in education, employment, health care and even access to healthy food.”

The city’s Smart Columbus team will manage and distribute 1,100 data feeds through the new operating platform to government offices and private companies.

The information that’s collected will help Columbus integrate self-driving cars, connected vehicles, smart sensors and other developing transportation technologies into the life of the city.

The city won its spot as the testing ground over San Francisco; Pittsburgh; Denver; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Kansas City, Missouri.

Thursday’s operating system launch comes amid efforts by Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich to advance smart transportation technology statewide.

Kasich signed an executive order last week authorizing autonomous vehicle research to take place on all public roads across the state. The order laid out safety parameters for such projects and creates a voluntary pilot program linking local governments to participating companies.

The order extended Kasich’s efforts to make Ohio a hub of smart vehicle research and development.

US Senate Votes to Restore Net Neutrality

The U.S. Senate voted 52-47 to overturn the FCC’s 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules, with all Democrats and three Republicans voting in favor of the measure.

The Senate approved a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution that would undo the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to deregulate the broadband industry. If the CRA is approved by the House and signed by President Donald Trump, internet service providers would have to continue following rules that prohibit blocking, throttling and paid prioritization.

The Republican-controlled FCC voted in December to repeal the rules, which require internet service providers to give equal footing to all web traffic.

Democrats argued that scrapping the rules would give ISPs free rein to suppress certain content or promote sites that pay them.

Republicans insist they, too, believe in net neutrality, but want to safeguard it by crafting forward-looking legislation rather than reimposing an outdated regulatory structure.

​’Political points’

“Democrats have decided to take the issue of net neutrality and make it partisan,” Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota said. “Instead of working with Republicans to develop permanent net neutrality legislation, they’ve decided to try to score political points with a partisan resolution that would do nothing to permanently secure net neutrality.”

Before the vote, Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, urged fellow senators to disregard the “armies of lobbyists marching the halls of Congress on behalf of big internet service providers.”

Lobbyists tried to convince senators that net neutrality rules aren’t needed “because ISPs will self-regulate,” and that blocking, throttling and paid prioritization are just hypothetical harms, Markey said.

Lobby groups representing all the major cable companies, telecoms and mobile carriers urged senators to reject the attempt to restore net neutrality rules.

The resolution still faces tough odds in the House. It requires 218 votes to force a vote there, and only 160 House Democrats back the measure for now. The legislation would also require the signature of Trump, who has criticized the net neutrality rules.

While Democrats recognize they are unlikely to reverse the FCC’s rule, they see the issue as a key policy desire that energizes their base voters, a top priority ahead of the midterm elections.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg, EU Lawmakers to Discuss Data Privacy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is slated to meet privately in Brussels as soon as next week with key European lawmakers about the data protection controversy that has affected his company.

EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani confirmed the meeting Wednesday.

It will be Zuckerberg’s first visit with EU representatives since a whistle-blower alleged that British political consulting company Cambridge Analytica improperly collected information from millions of Facebook accounts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The collection affected about 87 million users and prompted apologies from Zuckerberg.

Facebook was largely unscathed by Zuckerberg’s 10 hours of testimony before U.S. legislators in April. The social media giant’s share price increased after his testimony, and some lawmakers apparently failed to grasp the technical details of the company’s operation and data privacy policies. 

Zuckerberg’s pending appearance in Brussels comes as new European data protection laws are set to take effect May 25.

Some critics say Zuckerberg’s meeting with the lawmakers should be public.

Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a liberal-centrist political group of the European Parliament, said he would not attend the meeting if it were held behind closed doors.

“It must be a public hearing,” he said. “Why not a Facebook Live?” he asked on Twitter.