Sonography is the process of using sound waves as an imaging device, typically for medical purposes.


Indeed, the principles of sonography come from the natural world. For example, bats and whales are mammals that use sound waves for navigation. In 1794, after performing medical studies on bats, Lazzaro Spallanzani gained a basic understanding of ultrasound physics.

In 1880, French brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered piezoelectricity. Simplifying, piezoelectricity is an electric current generated by deforming certain crystals. For example, flint-less cigarette lighters and inkjet printers both utilize the piezo effect. Getting to the point, piezoelectricity enables ultrasound transducers that emit and receive soundwaves.

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic famously struck an iceberg and sank, killing about 1,500 people. Accordingly, government agencies around the world called for some method to better detect icebergs. Eventually, In 1914, Paul Langevin built on the work of Reginald Fessenden (of AM radio) to invent the first ultrasound transducer aimed at icebergs. His machine detected icebergs up to about two miles away but had no directional capability. To clarify, it could detect there was an iceberg somewhere close but not in which direction.

Ultrasound as Weaponry

The use of submarines in World War I increased the need for directional ultrasound in water. Eventually, Langevin and Constantin Chilowsky created a high-frequency ultrasound machine with directional capabilities. On April 23, 1916, their “hydrophone” was used to sink a German U-boat.

Medical Imaging

Eventually, in 1942, Austrian Neurologist Karl Dussik used sonography to detect brain tumors. Dussik used a method where sound waves were beamed towards the head of a patient partially submerged in water and the resulting echo recorded on heat-sensitive paper. Specifically, this became the first ultrasound image. Eventually, George Lewig used ultrasounds to detect gallstones and kidney stones.

Progress continued with physicians and engineers using ultrasound to measure various fluid-based organs. Most notable are studies in cardiology and obstetrics. By the 1970s, Doppler and color Doppler ultrasound imaging became commonplace. In the 1980s, Kazunori Baba of Japan developed 3D ultrasound.

By the 1990s, with the help of computers, real-time 3D ultrasound enabled surgeons to see inside a body during biopsies. Today, ultrasound machines are common, especially in obstetrics. Unlike radiation-based imaging devices, the ultrasound machines are entirely harmless.

Military Tank

Towards the late 1800s, Europeans and Americans both worked on the idea of a tire tread. They realized a treaded machine would be useful on rougher terrain. The Holt Manufacturing Company, later renamed Caterpillar, perfected and patented a working tread in 1904.

While engineers experimented developing working treads for tractors their use in war was obvious. In 1903, French artillery captain Léon Levavasseur envisioned an armored tractor with a cannon mounted to the front. Austrian officer Günther Burstyn envisioned a similar device with a rotating gun turret. Science fiction writer H.G. Wells published a whole short story, The Land Ironclads, in 1903 about motorized armor fighting machines. Similar to the countless failed attempts at tractor treads, some work went into their ideas but nobody developed a working machine.


With the outbreak of WWI, armies immediately realized the value of Holt’s tractors. The vast majority of WWI was fought in trenches. Soldiers would try running from their trench to the other, usually unable to break through a barrage of gunfire. However, they reasoned that an armored Holt tractor might work.

By the end of WWI, about 10,000 Holt tractors saw combat. American and English troops used modified Holt tractors from the beginning. The French initially determined to build their own treaded tractor but, by 1915, decided to also use modified Holt tractors.

By the time of WWI, other tractors proved more technologically advanced. However, due to their history as a tractor company, they were available in large quantities. The ability to quickly produce many tractors surpassed technological advantages other manufacturers might offer.

Various allied forces worked throughout the war to create and improve the tank. The word “tank” was the codename for the project of developing a weaponized tractor. Although the French and English tried using technology from their respective countries, Holt tractors proved the least costly and most widely available.

Despite their technological superiority producing motors and cars, the Germans only built one type of tank and deployed only 20 of those. Their tank, the A7V, was enormous and required 18 soldiers to operate. They also used about three dozen captured British tanks.

After WWI

Tanks did not begin to make a material dent in fighting until the end of the war and, even then, their impact was minimal.

Against the advice of colleagues, a rising officer in the US, Lt. Col. Patton, decided to join the newly formed US Tank Brigade. Between the wars, Americans under Patton continued improving their tank and Germans developed their own Panzer division. However, it was the French who built the largest number of tanks. The Soviets developed a capable tank and built about 5,000 but Stalin eventually executed the head of the project, Mikhail Tukhachevsky. The lack of tanks at the outbreak of WWII cost countless Russian lives though they later redeveloped their tank brigade. Despite the obviousness of the answer in hindsight, various generals argued during the period between the wars whether horses were obsolete.

Whereas tanks developed too late in WWI, they were a central weapon in WWII. Tanks remain a central weapon in all modern armies.

Refrigerated Trucks


Frederick Jones

Refrigerated trucks, invented by Frederick Jones, enable modern commerce. Jones is somewhat of an innowiki aberration in that he 1) invented something useful with enormous impact, 2) successfully commercialized it, 3) managed to keep the business and build it out, and 4) was a minority.

We’d like to have a long list of innovators with these attributes but it just doesn’t happen all that often. Two-thirds don’t even make money from their own work, much less do it while working under the stress of racism in the United States in the 1940s.

Jones was a self-taught engineer. African Americans could theoretically enter engineering schools during this time but, as MIT delicately puts it: “only a few students of color were able to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

Jones was bi-racial and, depending on the history either abandoned by his parents. Whichever the case, he was raised by a priest in Cincinnati starting at age seven. Sent to work as a janitor at age 11, his mechanical aptitude landed him a job as in auto repair by age 14. Eventually, in 1912, he moved to Minnesota to work as a mechanic on an enormous farm.

Despite segregation and over racism his engineering skills shined in WWI where he learned more advanced mechanical devices. During the interwar period, Jones invented refrigerated trucking.

In WWII, his trucks were especially useful for transporting blood and his company, US Thermal Control Company (later renamed Thermo-King), grew much larger. After the war, they eventually became ubiquitous in the grocery industry.

Despite his work was useful in both wartime and civilian infrastructure, enabling the modern grocery store, there was little recognition beyond commercial success during his lifetime. He died in 1961. Thirty years later, in 1991, President Bush Sr. posthumously awarded Jones the National Medical of Technology.

Eventually, in 1997, Ingersoll Rand acquired Jones’ Thermo-King for $2.56B in cash, where it remains today as a functioning company.

X-Ray Imaging

In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen noticed that electromagnetic radiation would expose bone structure under certain conditions. He invented the medical X-Ray machine. For his invention, Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1901, and several other illustrious awards. Due to WWI, companies were forbidden from paying the German royalties and his savings were destroyed by post-war hyperinflation. Röntgen died bankrupt despite the enormous impact of his work. However, General Electric used the technology to build a thriving medical imaging business that still exists.

Even high-quality modern sources wrongly attribute the X-Ray tube to prolific GE inventor Elihu Thomson. However, Thomson’s own papers make few mentions of x-rays. His only dated lab journal entry, Feb. 26, 1896, references “X-rays of Röntgen.”

Thomson’s earliest patent involving x-rays has a priority date of Feb. 14, 1898, three years after Roentgen’s work. The entry is titled “Roentgen-ray tube.”

It seems likely that Thomson may have, at most, invented a better (or at least different) x-ray generation tube.

Thomson came to GE after Edison General Electric Company acquired the Thomson-Houston Electric company in 1892, renaming itself the General Electric Company. He refused to move his laboratory from Massachusetts to GE headquarters in NY and also refused a management position.

Thomson has countless other legitimate innovations, with over 700 patents.

Synthetic Ammonia

Fritz Haber arguably saved and killed more people than any other single person in history.

Synthetic ammonia vastly lowered the cost of making fertilizer, explosives, and other chemicals.

The process to create synthetic ammonia was a concurrent invention. That is, two scientists came up with it at the same time independently of one another.

Because it allows for inexpensive fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch is responsible for approximately half the food grown in the world today. Fritz Haber, who both invented and also commercialized the process, saved billions of lives.

However, there is a darker history. Haber was a German Jew, a key German chemist developing chemical weapons for Germany in WWI. He oversaw their first use at the Second Battle of Ypres, where approximately 67,000 allied troops were killed in one gassing. His first wife committed suicide after learning how many people he helped kill.

Later, the institute he founded invented Zyklon A. Nazis used a successor chemical, Zyklon B, to murder millions in death camps including many members of Haber’s family. This caused his second wife to leave him, with the marriage ending in divorce.

Both, like Haber, converted from Judaism to Christianity though the Nazis did not care and banned Haber from his lab. He escaped Nazi Germany but died soon after the Nazi’s ascent to power in Basel, Switzerland.

Haber won the 1919 Nobel Prize in Chemistry but died a miserable man.