Tetraethyllead (Leaded Gasoline)

Leaded gasoline prevented engine ping, making driving safer and more pleasant. Correspondingly, it also caused an enormous amount of extremely toxic pollution.

Working for GM under the direct supervision of Charles Kettering at Dayton Research Laboratory, Midgley discovered the benefits of adding lead to gasoline. They named their innovation Tetraethyllead, avoiding any mention of lead, a known toxin.

Eventually, Tetraethyllead leaded gasoline became the standard, with tailpipes emitting poison throughout the world.

Eventually, the catalytic converter enabled lead-free gasoline. Virtually all countries banned Midgley’s leaded gasoline by the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Speculation remains that the lead pollution had profound health and environmental impact. A substantive decline in violent crime is sometimes attributed to the banning of Midgley’s Tetraethyllead.

Midgley’s lead plant both killed many people and drove others insane.

Midgley also invented CFC’s putting him in the running for the most destructive scientist of all time, short-listed with the likes of Fritz Haber.

Eventually, Midgley died from a pully contraption he invented.

Automatic Automobile Transmission

Automatic transmissions lower the complexity of driving, removing a barrier of entry. They also allow drivers to focus on the road rather than worries about shifting gears. Automatics vastly simplify driving though, in many countries, drivers who take their test with an automatic transmission may only drive using automatic transmission.

Thomas Sturtevant’s automatic transmission system, invented in 1904, used weights and centrifugal force to shift gears. No sooner did he announce it complete than it literally fell apart.

Eventually, Alfred Munro created and patented his system but never commercialized it.

Independent inventor Oscar Banker created the first automatic transmission that worked. No sooner did he announce it perfected than he started a years-long battle with automakers. Eventually, GM purchased his invention. Banker was a serial inventor who also created the inoculation gun and the controls for a helicopter.

Finally, Hydra-Matic became the first commercialized automatic transmission, developed in 1939 General Motors. The Hydra-Matic inventor is unclear and it may be largely from Banker’s system. However, historians disagree about how much, if any, of Banker’s transmission was included in the final design.

Unlike much of the world, 96% of the cars in the United States have automatic transmissions. Manual transmissions are reserved more as a novelty or for racecars.

Automatic transmissions used to be less fuel-efficient than manual transmissions but, thanks largely to computerized shifting, the disparity has all but disappeared. Furthermore, outside of professional racetracks, automatic transmissions accelerate at roughly the same speed as manual transmissions cars.

Due to their design, all known hybrid cars are automatic transmissions. Manual transmission wouldn’t work because the clutch would disengage the engine when the car was supposed to be recapturing energy from momentum. Electric cars do not have gears; the electric motor controls the wheels at any speed. However, this radically different design mimics an automatic transmission.

Highway (Limited Access Road)

High-speed streets with minimal interruptions were a novel concept when first created. Highways, technically called limited access roads, have entry and exit ramps are few and located far between.

Long Island, near New York, was home to the first highway in 1911. Americans continued to build highways, enacting the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

Germans built a system of super-roads – high speed thoroughfares, the Autobahn, starting with the Bonn-Cologne autobahn in 1929. However, the project was well underway before the Nazi party came to power.

The US Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided funds to states to build high-speed modern highways connecting the US. The law authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highway.

Eisenhower knew the potential of roads but also the problems of outdated roads because, in 1919, he volunteered for the army to drive across the then-rural USA. The army’s goal was to assess mobility by motor, a new concept. At the time many roads were unpaved and even signage was spotty.

Eisenhower’s “Motor Truck Train” left Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1919, with 81 vehicles to San Francisco. Seven hours, 46 miles (74km), and one breakdown later they were finished for the first night. Roads were so bad the army traveled with a trailer that routinely pulled trucks from the primitive roads.

Helping along a 'B.' (Credit: Eisenhower Collection)
The Motor Truck Train of 1919

The convoy dealt with no signage, slippery sand, and 200 yards of quicksand. Not realizing how long the journey would take, the soldiers resorted to water rationing despite that they were still inside the continental United States. It took 62 days to travel the 3,242 miles (5,200km) to San Francisco, an average of 52 miles (83.5km) per day.

“I think that every officer on the convoy had recommended in his report that efforts should be made to get our people interested in producing better roads. It seems evident that a very small amount of money spent at the proper time would have kept the road in good condition.”

Dwight Einsenhower

Once building the national system started, it didn’t take long for highways to reach into the core of the American psyche. Novelist Jack Kerouac penned On the Road in 1957, a story about an epic American road-trip, a right-of-passage for youngsters to take exploring the relatively enormous country. The freewheeling “beatniks” he described morphed into a generational ethos that, even today, permeates American culture.

Europe and other countries also built out their highway system. With the help of the Eurotunnel, completed in 1994, it’s possible to drive from Edinburgh, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, a mere 8,790 miles (15,750 km), a trip Google says will require 183 hours of driving time.

Highways remain popular and plentiful.

Airline

Count von Zeppelin, inventor of the airship, partnered with a group of other German industrialists to create a Zeppelin manufacturing company and also an airline.

Airships

Their first airship, the enormous LZ1, launched July 2, 1900. It crashed and survived but the test was not successful for the German government to invest more funds in airships. Frustrated, Zeppelin solicited small amounts of money from other governments. He’d exhausted his personal savings on the first airship so mortgaged his wife’s estate to continue the project.

LZ2 was damaged by high winds and LZ3 worked well enough to justify government investment if it could stay afloat for 24 hours. Since it could not remain aloft Zeppelin built LZ4.

Zeppelin never got along well with German government officials but the public loved the idea of his enormous Zeppelin’s. Building off that enthusiasm, and searching for funding, he launched a passenger-carrying business. The Deutsche Luftschiffahrtsgesellschaft or DELAG, is the world’s first passenger-carrying airline.

DELAG Airline

DELAG flew people around Europe and, eventually, between Europe and the United States. The company survived WWI and continued service. All was going well until one of its airships, The Hindenburg, on its 36th trans-Atlantic crossing, caught fire.

The first fixed-wing airline was created by entrepreneur Percival Fansler. He purchased a cargo plane from the Benoist Aircraft Company, that took off and landed on water. His airline flew between Tampa and St. Petersburg, a trip that would take two hours by steamship or 4-12 hours by train. The airline folded after four months, when northern residents headed home.

After WWI the US postal service decided to offer air mail and awarded contracts to companies that evolved into many of today’s large airlines. Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airlines, founded in 1927, is arguably the first modern large-scale airline.

Better Oil Drill Bit (Tricone Rotary Rock Drill)

A drill bit sounds relatively petty compared to the other inventions on this list. Granted, it’s not Watt’s condensing steam engine, Edison’s long-lasting lightbulb, Tesla’s induction motor or the Wright Brothers airplane. But Hughes drill bit dramatically lowered the cost of drilling for oil. It also opened previously unavailable oil fields where oil reserves lay beneath rock. This enabled low-cost fuel for the burgeoning auto industry.

Howard Hughes, Sr. partnered with Walter Sharp in 1902 to drill for oil in Texas. Like everybody else, they became frustrated that their drill bits kept breaking. They worked on innovating a better bit in 1906, achieved a dramatically better one in 1908, patented it in 1909. Eventually, they quit drilling to start their drill bit company, Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Sharp died in 2012 and Hughes bought out his interest. Howard Sr. died in 1924 and his son bought out the interest he didn’t own.

Hughes Jr., the billionaire, never showed an interest in the drill bit company. He used the cash flow to focus on movies, aircraft, and developing Las Vegas. Hughes tool dominated the oil bit market in its heyday. Even today, it continues to hold a strong market share (after merging with Baker International to become Baker Hughes International in 1987).

Gyroscopic Navigation (Autopilot)

Gyroscopic navigation enables planes and ships to stay on a straight course without human intervention.

Long before GPS, airplane pilots used compasses and waypoints to navigate. Natural landmarks or even giant arrows guided planes when to turn and in which direction. Of course, between waypoints, it was necessary to fly straight or the pilot would not get from one waypoint to another.

Ships had a similar problem. Sailing straight, where stars became the waypoints, was a challenge. Furthermore, some metal ships interfered with magnetic compasses.

Keeping a ship or plane on course was simultaneously both stressful and dull.

Gyroscopic navigation solved these problems. Gyroscopes kept planes and ships headed straight with no human intervention required. Besides steering straight they also helped stabilize planes, ships, and elevators.

Sperry’s company evolved into modern autopilot.

Airplane

Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane with their first flight in 1903. Urban myth describes an easy story where the bicycle mechanic brothers built an airplane from spare parts. In reality, the innovation was a long, slow, methodical, and extremely dangerous project.

Background

People had been building various forms of fixed-wing gliders for years. Many didn’t work. Those that managed to fly a short distance eventually crashed, often causing injuries or even death.

Inventing the airplane required 1) finding an aircraft form that would stay aloft, including wings, 2) figuring out mechanisms to control the aircraft, and 3) learning to fly it without killing oneself. IP theft was rampant: the brothers suffered relentlessly. Therefore, to protect IP, everything was secretive.

Wilbur & Orville Wright

The Wright Brothers spent years experimenting. First, they built a fixed-wing controllable glider. Once that worked, they spent more time working on building a much larger version that could produce more lift and was strong enough to carry an engine. Inventing a propeller, with nothing to test it on, also proved a challenge.

Once the brothers completed their plane it took years to obtain patents because the patent office believed that flight was impossible and their innovation a fraud. That’s because there were many false claims of flight and the Wright Brothers were secretive.

They also spent years commercializing their airplane, trying to find buyers, because the US war department refused to believe that it worked and the brothers – concerned about copycats – refused to give demonstrations. Eventually, patents issued and the brothers demonstrated their plane in France, to cheering crowds, and finally in the US.

They created a business, the Wright Company, to build and sell airplanes. Expensive patent wars ensued. Competitors were ruthless and dishonest but the brothers persevered. By 1912, they had a reasonable income from licensing and investors, but Wilbur died unexpectedly, leaving Orville moved forward with commercialization alone.

The business started to earn money but, with WWI on the horizon, the US government intervened and insisted on a patent cross-licensing agreement so that others could produce military aircraft.

Epilogue

Like many great innovators, the Wright Brothers earned enough money to live reasonably well, and became famous, but the overwhelming majority of wealth their innovation created flowed to others.

Specifically, Glenn Martin’s merged his first aircraft company with the Wright Brothers but left that business, after a year. His new company manufactured bombers. The Loughead company, later renamed Lockheed, built flying boats. Lockheed and Martin became industry giants and merged, in 1995, to become Lockheed-Martin.

William Boeing started his aircraft company in 1914, also producing flying boats, and also became a market leader.

In 1970, Airbus was formed after several European countries noted that all aircraft manufacturers were American.

Automobile Assembly Line

Assembly lines leverage standardized parts to break auto assembly into discrete components, each that can be done by a small number of people (often just one). Standardized parts evolved into standardized jobs.

Ransom Olds, inspired by a musket factory that used standardized parts with workers each focused on one part, created the first auto assembly line. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, did well. His cars sold for $150 less than Ford’s (pre-Model T). However, investors, determined to build pricier cars, pushed him out of his company.

The “disassembly” lines at Chicago slaughterhouses served as inspiration for Ford employee William Klann. One person repeatedly performs an individual task, butchering animals in stations. However, the single station factory is an old concept, arguably dating back to at least Arkwright-era factories.

Ford, via Klann, adopted the auto assembly line. He is generally (and wrongly) credited with the innovation of the auto assembly line.

Electric Cars

Electric cars were a strong contender as a powertrain in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In 1899, the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) was the largest vehicle manufacturer in the US. Early electric cars were quiet and drove smoothly. Most nineteenth-century taxis were electric cars.

On Year Year’s Eve, 1899, the US had more electric than internal combustion engine powered cars.

Oldsmobile overtook EVC in 1901. Ford eventually dominated the market with the low-cost Model T. The creation of the electric starter made internal combustion cars cheaper and easy to operate.

Electric cars made a comeback with GM’s EV1. No sooner did they gain in popularity than GM canceled the program and destroyed the cars. Eventually, internal combustion/electric hybrid’s gained market shared, typified by the Toyota Prius. Today, Tesla and most major auto manufacturers either produce or are developing electric cars.

Electric cars are simpler, with fewer moving parts, so tend to last longer, break less, and cost less to operate. Like immunotherapy, it took over a century for electric cars to mature but (also like immunotherapy) they’re likely to become dominant in the future.

Diesel Engines

Uses engines use compression to increase engine power. That increases engine power and reduces fuel costs.

Diesel is French though studied engineering in Germany. After graduating he returned to Paris and opened an early modern refrigeration factory, patenting several innovations. He eventually left and, barred from the industry, turned his attention to engines.

In 1893, Diesel created his compression “diesel” engine, filing patents in many countries. The business progressed until Diesel disappeared off the steamship Dresden, sailing from Antwerp to Harwick, England, on Sept. 29, 1913. To this day historians do not know the cause of his death. He had left a large sum of cash for his wife but his bank accounts were empty.

Diesel did have serious financial problems due to engine returns based on reliability problems. Conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered due to the threat of his more efficient “diesel” engine displacing then-dominant steam engines.

Diesel’s engine used a thermodynamic principle articulated by fellow Frenchman Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot in 1824.