On a surface level, Scotch tape may seem like just about the most boring product in the world. Though it can be found in nearly 90% of American households and is used for everything from wrapping gifts to “repairing” ripped dollar bills, we'll forgive you for never being curious about its origins. But stick with us: this gets interesting! ... The story of Scotch tape is one of incredible determination and risk-taking -- and its invention was thanks to a banjo-playing, college-dropout, “misfit” engineer who believed in his ability to invent. ... He ended up not just pioneering Scotch transparent tape and masking tape, but revolutionizing the way that his company, 3M, treated creative people.
Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress. ... The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) ... Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.
Lowell Wood broke Edison's patent record and helped bring down the Soviet Union ... He adds that he’s not terribly good with the ordinary aspects of life—paying bills, say, or car washing. He’s too consumed with inventing solutions to the world’s problems. Ideas—really big ideas—keep bombarding his mind. “It’s like the rain forest,” he says. “Every afternoon, the rains come.” ... He’s an astrophysicist, a self-trained paleontologist and computer scientist, and, as of a few months ago, the most prolific inventor in U.S. history. ... “Lowell is the definition of a polymath,” Gates says. “It’s not just how much he knows, it’s the way his brain works. He gives himself the freedom to look at problems in a different way from everyone else. To me, that is the mark of a great inventor.” ... Wood attributes his ability to hop from subject to subject, making associations that sometimes lead to inventions, to reading—a lot. He subscribes to three dozen academic journals. “I have a terrible deficiency of willpower once I open an electronic table of contents for Physical Review Letters or the New England Journal of Medicine,” he says. “It’s just terribly difficult to pull myself away from them. There will be these three articles that I absolutely have to read before I can turn loose of this thing. If I don’t read them, I’m doomed. I’ll never come back to them because there will be the next day’s journals and the ones after that.” ... As part of his mental regimen, Wood refuses to make to-do lists, even for grocery shopping. If he forgets something at the store, he says, “I will kick myself vigorously.” He gives himself the same treatment at work. “If you make a mistake, you should not only not make that mistake again but also don’t make that class of mistake again,” he says. “That’s an exceedingly important concept to improve human performance at the individual scale.”
Meet the iChip, a plastic block that helped scientists discover a new antibiotic that kills superbugs. Will it be enough to save humankind from the coming bacterial apocalypse? ... Even more exciting is the innovation used to discover teixobactin: the unassuming plastic blocks. Each one is called an iChip, short for isolation chip, so-named because of how it captures microbes from soil. Until now, scientists hunting for antibiotics haven’t been able to study 99 percent of the world’s microbial species because, when ripped from the outdoors and encouraged to grow under desolate laboratory conditions, the vast majority of bacteria die. The iChip overcomes this problem by keeping things dirty: Burying soil microbes in their natural habitat during the culturing process preserves the organic compounds they need to thrive, enticing previously stubborn microorganisms to multiply under human supervision. ... An investigation by a U.K. government task force estimates that the global toll of antibiotic resistance is 700,000 deaths per year—and that it could soar to 10 million by 2050. In the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-immune bacteria annually; some 23,000 die. (The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called the estimate “a bare minimum.”) All that illness and death exacts substantial economic losses, too: The U.K. task force projects that resistance will sap between 2 and 3.5 percent of the world’s GDP—about $100 trillion—over the next 35 years. ... The iChip could prove an essential tool for warding off bacteria’s looming assault on humans, but it’s not a cure-all. ... Rather than trying to determine what biological compounds soil bacteria need to flourish—science still doesn’t have a precise answer—he focused on the simple fact that many microbes are happy in dirt.
This apple had been carefully grown somewhere in Washington state, the result of millions of dollars and two decades of labor. Break apart its unremarkable surface to reveal its flesh, wait long enough, and you’ll see what’s different: It remains pure white. It doesn’t start to brown right after you take a bite and leave it on the kitchen counter. In fact, it doesn’t start to brown until it molds or rots. It doesn’t bruise, either. Through a feat of genetic engineering, Carter’s apples hold on indefinitely to the pearly-white insides that inspired their name — the Arctic. ... The Arctic was conceived by Carter’s company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which he runs with his wife, Louisa, and four other full-time employees, newly under the umbrella of a large biotech company that bought it this year. It’s an intended solution to what Carter sees as two interrelated problems: First, millions of pounds of perfectly good apples get dumped every year because they look a little too bruised or brown, the victims of an instinctive human aversion to fruits and vegetables that aren’t smooth, shiny, and symmetrical. And at the same time, North American consumers, accustomed to 100-calorie packs and grab-and-go everything, have developed an impatience for food that can’t be quickly eaten. ... Taken together, these two trends mean that while apple consumption has flatlined in the United States for decades, a staggering amount of apples go wasted. ... Apples in particular have been transformed dramatically by commercial cultivation and serendipitous acts of nature over the last two millennia. The apples grocery store shoppers pluck off shelves in 2015 are vastly different from the ones first discovered in Kazakhstan, or even the ones grown by Johnny Appleseed in the 19th century. ... A study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs estimated that $15 billion in fresh and processed fruit was lost from the U.S. food supply in 2008 — about $9 billion at the consumer level and the rest at the retail level.
Q-tips are one of the most perplexing things for sale in America. Plenty of consumer products are widely used in ways other than their core function — books for leveling tables, newspapers for keeping fires aflame, seltzer for removing stains, coffee tables for resting legs — but these cotton swabs are distinct. Q-tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against. ... The little padded sticks have long been marketed as household staples, pitched for various kinds of beauty upkeep, arts and crafts, home-cleaning, and baby care. And, for years, they have carried an explicit caution — every box of Q-tips comes with this caveat: "Do not insert inside the ear canal." But everyone — especially those who look into people's ears for a living — know that many, if not most, flat out ignore the warning.
Sometime in 1882, a skinny, dark-haired, 11-year-old boy named Harry Brearley entered a steelworks for the first time. A shy kid—he was scared of the dark, and a picky eater—he was also curious, and the industrial revolution in Sheffield, England, offered much in the way of amusements. He enjoyed wandering around town—he later called himself a Sheffield Street Arab—watching road builders, bricklayers, painters, coal deliverers, butchers, and grinders. He was drawn especially to workshops; if he couldn’t see in a shop window, he would knock on the door and offer to run an errand for the privilege of watching whatever work was going on inside. Factories were even more appealing, and he had learned to gain access by delivering, or pretending to deliver, lunch or dinner to an employee. Once inside, he must have reveled, for not until the day’s end did he emerge, all grimy and gray but for his blue eyes. Inside the steelworks, the action compelled him so much that he spent hours sitting inconspicuously on great piles of coal, breathing through his mouth, watching brawny men shoveling fuel into furnaces, hammering white-hot ingots of iron. ... There was one operation in particular that young Harry liked: a toughness test performed by the blacksmith. ... young Harry became familiar with steelmaking long before he formally taught himself as much as there was to know about the practice. It was the beginning of a life devoted to steel, without the distractions of hobbies, vacations, or church. It was the origin of a career in which Brearley wrote eight books on metals, five of which contain the word steel in the title; in which he could argue about steelmaking—but not politics—all night; and in which the love and devotion he bestowed upon inanimate metals exceeded that which he bestowed upon his parents or wife or son. Steel was Harry’s true love. It would lead, eventually, to the discovery of stainless steel.
Starting in the early 2000s, the rights and protections conferred by a U.S. patent have eroded to the point that they are weaker today than at any time since the Great Depression. A series of Supreme Court decisions and then the most important patent-reform legislation in sixty years, signed into law in 2011, have made it so. The stated purpose of the reform has been to exterminate so-called patent trolls—those entities that own patents (sometimes many thousands of them) and engage in no business other than suing companies for patent infringement. The reforms have had their desired effect. It has become harder for trolls to sue. But they've made it harder for people with legitimate cases, people like Norred, to sue, too. ... According to many inventors, entrepreneurs, legal scholars, judges, and former and current USPTO officials, the altered patent system harms the independent, entrepreneurial, garage-and-basement inventors, who loom as large in our national mythology as the pilgrim and the pioneer.
Charles and John Deane, brothers born four years apart, grew up in a foul dockyard precinct on the edge of London. A former fishing settlement on the Thames, the area had been swallowed by Europe’s largest city. By 1800, it had become a squalid reach of maritime activity and drinking establishments overlooking a fetid waterfront. ... the Deanes’ royal titles and estates had long since been squandered by the time Charles and John were born; their father toiled as a caulker, patching seams in the hulls of ships that his forebears once designed. ... many daring divers had attempted to retrieve sunken treasure in a variety of contraptions—wooden containers, copper jackets, metal canisters. Some died. Others were crippled. ... The Royal George sat in waters about 80 feet deep. At that depth, a pressure differential could create suction 10 times stronger than a modern vacuum cleaner. That might not be strong enough to rip off a face and suck it through an air hose, but it would certainly cause permanent damage or death, as was the sad fate of William Tracey and many others that came after him. ... The brothers were learning hydrodynamics by trial and error, and the crowd got a good show.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Richard Nixon became president of the U.S., and 400,000 hippies descended on a sleepy New York farm near Woodstock. On the other side of the Atlantic, on a winter’s day in London, a mustachioed Greek banker named Minos Zombanakis was taking his own small step into history. He’d hit upon a novel way to lend large amounts of money to companies and countries that wanted to borrow dollars but would rather avoid the rigors of U.S. financial regulation. ... The Eurodollar market, as the vast pool of U.S. dollars held by banks outside the States is known, was already well developed, but Zombanakis had spotted a gap: the supply of large loans to borrowers looking for an alternate source of capital to the bond markets. He persuaded his bosses in New York to give him $5 million to set up a branch in London.
The invention of parchment is traditionally ascribed to King Eumenes II of Pergamon, ruler from 197 to 159 BCE of a Greek city-state located in what is now northwestern Turkey. Pergamon comprised only the city itself and a few local towns when Eumenes was crowned as king, but at his death thirty-eight years later it had been transformed into a political, martial, and cultural powerhouse. Chief among his achievements was the founding of a great library to rival that of Alexandria, and Eumenes’s institution boasted some 200,000 volumes at its peak. The Pergamenes’ book-collecting mania was so notorious that citizens of the nearby town of Scepsis, having inherited Aristotle’s library from one of the late philosopher’s students, took the extraordinary step of burying its literary treasure to stop it falling into the hands of their acquisitive neighbors. ... Writing in the first century CE, Pliny says that King Ptolemy of Egypt—the same Ptolemy, presumably, whom Eumenes had goaded with his importunate headhunting—was so incensed by the rise of Pergamon’s library that he banned exports of the papyrus on which it depended. Eumenes responded to the embargo by directing his subjects to find an alternative writing surface; thus, parchment was invented, and Eumenes got the credit. ... Parchment’s origins were a good deal more ancient, and its road to prominence much bloodier, than Pliny knew.
Pettis had begun his ascent in 2006, producing weekly videos for MAKE magazine—the maker movement’s Bible—that featured him navigating goofy tasks such as powering a light bulb with a modified hamster wheel. In 2008, he cofounded the NYC Resistor hackerspace in Brooklyn. By then, Pettis was a star. A year later, he launched a Brooklyn-based startup with friends Adam Mayer and Zach Smith (also a NYC Resistor cofounder) called MakerBot. ... By 2015, Pettis, Mayer, and Smith had all moved on. A new CEO and management team has taken the helm since then, and three rounds of layoffs cut the employee head count from a high of around 600 to about half that. This year a Taiwanese competitor nabbed MakerBot’s spot as the most popular desktop 3D printer maker. ... How did MakerBot, the darling of the 3D printing industry, fall so hard and seemingly so fast?
Yet the mystery of the mechanism is only partly solved. No one knows who made it, how many others like it were made, or where it was going when the ship carrying it sank. ... What if other objects like the Antikythera Mechanism have already been discovered and forgotten? There may well be documented evidence of such finds somewhere in the world, in the vast archives of human research, scholarly and otherwise, but simply no way to search for them. Until now. ... Scholars have long wrestled with “undiscovered public knowledge,” a problem that occurs when researchers arrive at conclusions independently from one another, creating fragments of understanding that are “logically related but never retrieved, brought together, [or] interpreted,” as Don Swanson wrote in an influential 1986 essay introducing the concept. ... In other words, on top of everything we don’t know, there’s everything we don’t know that we already know. ... Discovery in the online realm is powered by a mix of human curiosity and algorithmic inquiry, a dynamic that is reflected in the earliest language of the internet. The web was built to be explored not just by people, but by machines. As humans surf the web, they’re aided by algorithms doing the work beneath the surface, sequenced to monitor and rank an ever-swelling current of information for pluckable treasures. The search engine’s cultural status has evolved with the dramatic expansion of the web. ... Using machines to find meaning in vast sets of data has been one of the great promises of the computing age since long before the internet was built.
- Also: Quartz - Inside the secret meeting where Apple revealed the state of its AI research < 5min
- Also: The Library Quarterly - Undiscovered Public Knowledge > 15min
- Also: AAAI - Undiscovered Public Knowledge: a Ten-Year Update 5-15min
- Also: Wired - Inside OpenAI, Elon Musk’s Wild Plan to Set Artificial Intelligence Free 5-15min
The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror or being represented in a portrait as the center of attention encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God. ... the average person saw himself only as part of a community. This is why the medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe. A tradesman thrown out of his hometown would lose everything that gave him his identity. ... What happened in the fifteenth century was not so much that this community identity broke down, but rather that people started to become aware of their unique qualities irrespective of their loyalty to their community. That old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.
The mini-farm’s inventor, Ed Harwood, of Ithaca, New York, sold it to the school in 2010. Harwood is a sixty-six-year-old man of medium stature who speaks with the kind of rural accent that sometimes drops the last letters of words. He has been an associate professor at Cornell’s famous school of agriculture, and he began his career as an inventor by coming up with revolutionary improvements in the computer management of dairy cows, an animal he loves. ... After spending part of his youth and young adulthood working on his uncle’s dairy farm, he got degrees in microbiology, animal science, dairy science, and artificial intelligence, and applied his knowledge to the dairy industry. ... He first became interested in growing crops indoors in the two-thousand-aughts. Around 2003, his notebooks and diaries began to converge on ideas about how he could raise crops without soil, sunlight, or large amounts of water. ... Aeroponic farming uses about seventy per cent less water than hydroponic farming, which grows plants in water; hydroponic farming uses seventy per cent less water than regular farming. If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high. ... Harwood solved the problem of the crop-growing medium by substituting cloth for soil. ... Agricultural runoff is the main cause of pollution in the oceans; vertical farms produce no runoff.
The boy whose teen and young-adult years were ripped from him by the murderous Nazi rampage through Europe would show millions of children and adults how to play, how to squeeze more fun out of their lives. ... Orenstein now speaks English with a borscht-thick European accent that’s just one notch above a whisper. He is still alive, still gambling and still winning most of his bets. Glancing out the window of his New York City pied-à-terre, which offers sweeping views of Central Park, he leans forward and rests his elbows on the large poker table in front of him. ... The story of how Henry Orenstein went from a small town in Poland, through five concentration camps, all the way to his 24th-floor apartment on one of Manhattan’s most expensive strips of real estate is the stuff of fiction, and science fiction. He bluffed and cajoled to survive the Holocaust, and just a few years later, armed with unrelenting drive and rare creativity, he tinkered and hustled his way to the top of America’s toy industry, helping to put dolls, race cars and one of the most successful action figures in history into the hands of generations of children. Then he transformed poker from a game played in dimly lit rooms to a billion-dollar business.