Fiberglass has multiple uses. It acts as an insulator, building material, and even boat hulls.

First, in 1870, John Player developed a process to mass-produce glass strands with seam jets used for insulation. By and large, this is arguably the first fiberglass.

Eventually, in 1880, Herman Hammesfahr patented weaving glass fibers to silk, making it durable and flame retardant.

Modern fiberglass is an accidental discovery. Corning Glass sold cookware. Product developer Dale Kleist was working to fuse glass pieces together. He thought the molten glass was not fusing correctly. To cool it down, he shot it with compressed creating a flood of thin glass fibers, modern fiberglass.

In 1935, Corning Glass started a co-development project with Owens-Illinois, another company working on fiberglass. The next year they merged, forming Corning-Owens, the company’s still current name.

By the late 1930s and early 1940s, they were spinning the fibers into cloth to reinforce laminates.

In 1936, DuPont’s Carlton Ellis patented polyester resin. Germany perfected combining it with fiberglass to make light and strong laminates. Eventually, during WWII, Allied spies stole the technology and brought it to the US. This material is the forerunner of modern laminates. Cars, boats, and even aircraft use light, strong laminates.


Aerosols are essentially fog. They’re water-based micro-drops suspended in a gas, which is usually air.

In 1926, Norwegian Erik Rotheim developed the first aerosol sprayer. Eventually, he applied for Norwegian and US patents and worked towards commercialization.

First, he worked towards aerosolizing paints and varnishes but customers showed no interest. Subsequently, he continued looking for commercial applications but died in 1938, at age 40.

Rotheim’s estate sold the patent to a US company where the technology lay largely dormant until the 1940s. Eventually, the military realized the usefulness of an aerosol bug spray during WWII, the “bug bomb.”

Rotheim used a pressurized gas that kept a steady pressure inside the can, releasing a set amount of liquid and gas. In 1949, American Robert Abplanalp invented the aerosol spray valve, that enabled aerosolization without a pressurized gas … the spray pump.

Aerosols became popular in the 1950s with countless uses. Women sprayed products in their hair, people painted with airbrushes, car finishes became smoother, window washing solutions sprayed evenly. Common uses include medicine, spraying pesticides and insecticides, and for fuel injection systems. These products are so common today it’s hard to fathom that the innovation is relatively recent.

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)

MEMS are literally microscopic-machines. The best-known MEMS are the accelerometers that have become ubiquitous in smartphones, allowing precise tracking of movement on the X, Y, and Z-axis. Significantly, MEMS are the reason your phone can sense movement. Additionally, other MEMS devices include miniature microphones, projectors, cameras, and countless others.

MEMS were first proposed in 1959 via a paper by physicist Richard Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He theorized about the growth in micro and nanotechnology.

In 1964, Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse introduced the first working MEMS device, a tiny transistor. Subsequently, during the 1960s and 1970s work continued, with machines etched into silicon working as pressure sensors. Eventually, these evolved into MEMS-based blood pressure monitoring devices.

In 1979 HP released a MEMS controlled inkjet nozzle to create the inkjet printer.

The first crude MEMS accelerometer dates to 1982. Airbags were important because they must fire when needed, never fire when not needed, and react almost instantly.

By 1993 Analog Devices produced the first real 3D MEMS accelerometer. At $5 it cost far less and functioned far better than other solutions. Countless airbag deployments relied on this inexpensive yet accurate accelerometer. Eventually, Nintendo adopted it for use to track motion in the Wii gaming system.

MEMS technology continues to develop with scientists working on microscopic insulin pumps, glucometers, DNA arrays, and other lab-on-a-chip applications.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET Plastic bottles)

PET plastic reduced the cost and weight of beverage containers. Originally, only glass and metal containers were suitable for storing carbonated drinks. Other plastics would bulge and break. However, PET plastic enabled plastic bottles suitable for carbonated drinks. Soon, it became used for all beverages.

In the 1960s, plastics engineer Wyeth questioned whether carbonated drinks could be stored in plastic bottles. Experimentation quickly the carbonation causes the bottles to expand and, sometimes, explode.

Wyeth worked for about a decade to find a plastic that could hold carbonated drinks, eventually innovating polyethylene-terephthalate (PET) plastic. He filed for patent protection in 1973. Eventually, PET bottles came to dominate the market.

Subsequently, Wyeth’s bottles have become an environmental mess. Eventually, in 2019, some bottlers are working to transition from PET bottles to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Mini Steel Mill (mini-mill)


Ken Iverson

“Integrated” steel mills create steel from raw materials. They use the Bessemer process to transform raw materials into enormous amounts of steel. The plants are giant, inflexible, dirty, and expensive to erect and run.

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An integrated steel mill

Ken Iverson worked at the Nuclear Corporation of America (eventually, Nucor), a conglomerate of assorted businesses pulled together by activist investors to preserve tax writeoffs in the mid-1950s. Arguably, the first thing erected by Nurcor was a tax shelter.

Eventually, Ken Iverson was appointed CEO and realized Nucor had only one profitable business, Vulcraft, a steel fabricator focused on joists. Iverson focused on the Vulcraft business, shutting down the unprofitable businesses.

By the late 1960s, Iverson decided that the terms and conditions large steel mills sold steel were unreasonable. Iverson decided to create his own steel.

However, creating a fully integrated steel mill was expensive and cumbersome. Nucor, with their one business, did not have the capital to build an integrated mill even if they wanted to.

In contrast, Iverson realized there was a surplus of scrap steel he could melt down and purify. Rather than creating steel from scratch, he’d create steel from scrap.

In 1969, he created the first mini-mill to create fuel for Vulcraft but quickly expanding to sell steel to other businesses.

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Nucor mini-mill

Soon enough, his mini steel mill, or minimill, became competitive with integrated mills that make steel from scratch.

Not long after that, they surpassed the large integrated mills. Mini-mills, that rely on recycled metal, were more flexible than the large mills. If a large order came in, they could melt down more steel. When times were slower, they could melt less steel. There was no need to perpetually operate since there was not an enormous amount of infrastructure — including enormous smelters — which need to continually function.

Further, minimills cost far less to startup and operate than full-fledged steel mills. Iverson purchased his first blast furnace for only $6 million (about $40 million in 2019, but still far cheaper than creating an integrated steel mill from scratch).

Besides costing less, mini-mills are environmentally better. They use far less fuel, do not require mining raw materials, and empty junkyards of scrap steel.

Controlled Drug Delivery

Controlled drug delivery is a simpler and more convenient way to slowly release drugs than taking low-dose pills or injections at frequent intervals. Additionally, it also lowers the risk of incorrect dosage.

Zaffaroni invented controlled (slow) release drugs, mimicking the way the body releases hormones. Eventually, he created many pharma companies that went on to sell various slow-release drugs.

Zaffaroni improved his slow drug delivery by inventing the transdermal patch, founding a company ALZA for that innovation alone. Significantly, in 2001, ALZA sold to Johnson & Johnson for $10 billion.

Other Zaffaroni controlled drug delivery use cases include drugs to treat glaucoma, non-insulin dependent diabetes, chronic pain, nausea and motion sickness, and nicotine addiction. A skin patch, that looks like adhesive tape, delivers the drugs.

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

“New York City and you’re flying in an airplane and you see all these lights. And you think lights, lights, lights, lights, lights.”

Nick Holonyak

Nick Holonyak Jr.’s mom was an orphan. His dad was a coal miner. After a stint in the mine’s, Nick decided school sounded like a fine idea.

Holonyak was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, inventor of the semiconductor.

Holonyak worked at General Electric in the laser group. Lasers, to that time, were infrared and invisible to the naked eye. In 1962, Holonyak invented a Light Emitting Diode (LED) that emitted a red light, making the laser light visible. To this day, all red lasers are based on Holonyak’s work.

In 1963 Holonyak left GE for academia, joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. GE, along with other competitors, built a substantial LED business that still exists. Additionally, other companies went on to use the technology to improve devices from lasers to television and computer screens.

GE build from their own LED light business. However, with the innovation of LED light bulbs that last for decades, their core lighting business is destined for extinction as the need for replacement bulbs is expected to wane. As of 2019, GE has been working for years to sell the light-bulb business that dates back to Edison and launched the business. However, thanks to the longevity of LED lights, they so far failed to find a buyer.

Markedly, Holonyak has no received a Nobel Prize despite that the prize was awarded to the inventor of blue LED’s, a derivative of Holonyak’s work.

“They’re so damn cheap.”

Nick Holonyak

Carbon Fiber


Roger Bacon

Paper airplanes glued together are fun but not something anybody would actually fly on. But that is essentially what modern jet aircraft are. Carbon fiber is essentially threads glued together into a fabric and turned into the bodies of aircraft, the wings, cars, bicycles, and countless other objects.

Carbon Fiber is stronger and lighter than metal though common sense makes it sound more like fabric than anything that takes enormous stress. It enables jets, giant windmills, lightweight bicycles, and a myriad of other modern things.

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Carbon Fiber Helicopter

Carbon fiber is high in stiffness, has high tensile strength, has a low weight-to-strength ratio, is high in chemical resistance, tolerates excessive heat, and has low thermal expansion.

Edison was the first to discover carbon fiber in the late 1800s while searching for a filament for his lightbulb. However, he never adequately isolated or understood the potential beyond lightbulbs, a common problem with early innovators.

Roger Bacon discovered modern carbon fiber in 1958 as a young researcher, calling it “graphite whiskers.” He realized the material was special because of its strength and flexibility. However, at the time, he couldn’t think of any real-life applications.

Bacon’s discovery was accidental. He was spraying material through an electric arc and realized it turned into a series of threads, a glass shower. These turned out to be the carbon threads that, when woven together with a laminate, make up modern carbon fiber.

“… they had amazing properties,” said Bacon. “They were only a tenth of the diameter of a human hair, but you could bend them and kink them and they weren’t brittle. They were long filaments of perfect graphite.”

Eventually, in 1963, Union Carbide worked to commercialize the strong fibers. In 1970, Japanese researchers refined Bacon’s fiber into modern Polyacrylonitrile “PAN” fibers, the carbon fibers used to build airframes, bicycles, and certain auto parts.

Research continues on ever-faster ways to produce this high-strength lightweight material.


LASER’s allow light to be intensely focused. There are many uses, from reading digital media at low power to cutting at higher powers. Countless applications rely on LASER technology.

In 1957, Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes, of Bell Labs, worked on an infrared LASER, called an “optical MASER.” They patented the invention in 1958.

In 1960, Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Lab created the first visible-light LASER. It was based on Schawlow and Townes (and, arguably, Gould’s) work.

Gordon Gould also claims credit for innovating the LASER, having notarized earlier notes he’d shown to Schawlow. However, Gould could not obtain patents because the work was considered classified by the US Government. Gould was a communist sympathizer. He spent 30 years fighting for laser patents and eventually won. However, by then he’d sold 80% of the royalties. Eventually, he still collected several million dollars.

Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the LASER. Schawlow shared the 1981 Nobel Prize for helping to invent the LASER.

Solar Cells

Solar Cells produce electricity from sunlight.

Early History

In 1873 and 1874, scientists noticed that selenium reacted with light to produce electricity. During the 1870s William Adams and Richard Day proved that light plus selenium generated current. Eventually, famous German scientist Werner von Siemens (founder of Siemens) was excited about the possibility of solar cells in the late 1800s. Indeed, in 1905, Einstein explained what made solar cells work, “light quanta” – that we now call photons.

Subsequently, by the early 1930s, scientists were enamored with solar cells: “…in the not distant future, huge plants will employ thousands of these plates to transform sunlight into electric power…that can compete with hydroelectric and steam-driven generators in running factories and lighting homes” wrote German scientist Bruno Lange in 1931.

However, as the cells proved inefficient, interest waned. By 1949, scientists had all but given up hope on a reasonably efficient solar cell.

Eventually, five years later, scientists Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson of Bell Labs were working with silicon to create transistors. They noticed that silicon could generate electricity.

In a different area, scientist Daryl Chapin was tasked with the remote generation of electricity. He started to experiment with selenium but faced the same problem earlier scientists had, efficiency of just 0.5 percent. Pearson told Fuller he was wasting his time with selenium and to try silicon, which ran at 2.3 percent efficiency, much higher.

Bell labs continued working on solar cells and, on Apr. 25, 1954, displayed a 21-inch Ferris wheel that ran on a solar-powered battery. The press loved the concept: unlimited, free energy from the sun.

More Recently

Subsequently, solar cells have since fared better and worse, becoming popular in the 1970s only to disappear again. Eventually, they reemerged in the 2000s as a viable source of electricity.

As of 2018, solar cells have efficiency as high as 22.5%. As efficiency increases and price decreases, solar is becoming one of the least expensive options to generate electricity; only wind energy costs less.