Container Shipping

Before container shipping, trucks were manually unloaded by longshoremen, loaded onto ships, and the process repeated at the destination. This added enormous cost, slowed shipping times and increased the risk of breakage.

Inspired by WWII standardization, McLean designed containers that fit directly on ships. His standardized containers and ships enable faster and less expensive loading and unloading of ships.

Container shipping puts the cargo part of trucks, the “container,” on ships, no unloading and reloading needed.

McLean’s containers move directly between trucks and ships. To spur scale and encourage standardization, he licensed his patents for free.

In 1969, McLean sold his company to RJR Reynolds for $500 million, pocketing $160 million personally. A later company, that envisioned super-shipping ships, went bankrupt. McLean made money, lost much of it in a later venture, and died comfortable but without recognizing the bulk of the wealth he created.

In total, he founded three companies that went on to be listed on the NYSE. At one point, he was one of the 400 wealthiest men in the US. However, due to bad investments, he went bankrupt.

Container shipping remains the dominant form of shipping. The OOCL Hong Kong is 400 meters long (5.5 football fields), 60 meters wide, and 32.5 meters deep.

Vessel Photo at Venue F (002)2
OOCL Hong Kong

Industrial Robot

Though understated at the time, few inventions have had as much impact as the industrial robot.

Industrial robots were invented by George Devol. A prolific innovator, Devol patented the “Unimate” – a term he coined – in 1954 to name his robot.

Robots have existed in science fiction for ages, often as machines in human form. The Wizard of Oz movie had the Tinman dancing and singing fifteen years before Devol’s real robot, and the movie is based on a book published in 1900.

Devol’s Unimate neither sung nor danced. It wasn’t especially attractive and, unlike the Tinman, didn’t want a heart. More to the point, factory owners did not want a worker with a heart, or a brain, or the need for sleep, breaks, vacations, weekends, health insurance or a pension. Unimate could grip, weld, tool, and spray.

Previously to the Unimate, Devol had built and sold several innovations including the self-opening door. Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt tried to steal credit despite that their door was launched two decades after Devol’s. The experience of dealing with IP thieves made Devol acutely aware of slimy business practices.

There was no prior art to Devol’s robot. Despite a long history in science fiction, nobody had submitted a patent for anything like it before.

In 1960, Devol sold the first robot to General Motors to lift and stack hot pipes. Chrysler, Ford, and Fiat followed.

Devol went on to spend the rest of his life improving industrial robots. Engelberger worked with Devol. Unimate thrived until the early 1980s when they failed to transition from hydraulic to electric motors.

Hard Disk Drive

Disk drives quickly store and retrieve information for computers.

The primary inventor is Reynold “Rey” Johnson. Previously, he invented and sold the technology that reads pencil dots, usually for taking tests, to IBM. Subsequently, he then joined them as a staff engineer. While at IBM he developed the hard disk drive.

The first hard drive, the IBM 350 RAMC, was about 1.5 sqm and weighed over a ton. Moving the disk drive required forklifts. It stored 5MB of memory (.05GB) and leased for $3,200 ($30,000 adjusted to 2019) per month. The only computer the drive worked with was the IBM305, a bemouth that used tubes and was programmed via wire jumpers.

After the hard drive, Johnson worked with IBM and Sony to develop the videocassette.

Eventually, after retirement, he developed the speech tech used in “speak to me books.”

FM Radio


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” cathode ray tube. However, by his own admission, saw no use for it in radio.

During his time at Columbia, Armstrong worked with Audion tubes and realized they could recycle a radio signal, amplifying it by sending it repeatedly through the tube. Further, by reversing the process, Armstrong could amplify the reception of a radio signal as well.

de Forest, by his own admission, was focused on using the tube to amplify telephone signals. He had no interest in radio signals.

Patent War

Companies licensed the tube from both Armstrong and de Forest then fought one another. AT&T initially supported de Forest whereas RCA supported Armstrong. At one point, due to licensing, Armstrong was the largest shareholder in RCA. But RCA eventually decided to side with de Forest, abandoning Armstrong, who continued his lawsuits.

Litigation continued with de Forest losing all the early rounds. Eventually, he appended his initial tube patent to focus not specifically on radio waves but, more generally, on electricity, and won.

The definitive Supreme Court opinion issued in 1932. The third Supreme Court decision in the case, issued two decades after the patent applications were filed, suggests the Court was exhausted by the ongoing litigation. The Court reasoned the patent holder is whomever first makes a thing, not who innovates various uses from it (a position that would change, later, as the law and the Court changed). There is an undertone that Armstrong and de Forest should have settled the case long ago and cross-licensed the technology.

FM Radio

During this time Armstrong extended uses for the tube, inventing FM that had much cleaner sound than AM. Armstrong offered the FM patent to his old friend Sarnoff, who had risen to become CEO of RCA and creator of the National Broadcasting Corporation. Sarnoff saw FM as an enormous breakthrough but, during the Depression, did not think buyers would pay for new receivers and did not want to incur the expense of new transmitters.

RCA had first right of refusal for the technology but failed to strike a deal. Eventually, Armstrong commercialized his radios, selling $5 millions of RCA shares and created a company to compete with RCA and its broadcasters. His company had $2M/year in revenue but was spending as much on expansion.

With never-ending patent battles, and no money left ー and obsessed on the court cases ー his wife of 31 years left him on Jan. 1, 1954. He soon after committed suicide at age 63. The case did not definitively end until Oct. 9, 1967, after a Supreme Court forced the last settlement, by Motorola.

Besides FM radio, Armstrong also invented the Superheterodyne receiver, that used a series of filters to more accurately and cleanly tune into a radio station.

Traffic Signal

A manually-controlled gas-powered light-switch on London Bridge was the first traffic signal. It was never popular and, in 1869, exploded and hurt the policeman controlling the switch.

Subsequently, there were countless versions of semaphore lights to control traffic. None gained commercial acceptance.

Morgan, who invented the gas mask, also invented and patented the modern traffic signal. General Electric purchased his traffic signal patent for $40,000 in 1923.

As an African American, Morgan (“the Black Edison”), repeatedly struggled to gain acceptance in business circles.

Morgan lost all his money in 1929, due to the Great Depression. He sought government funds as a reward for a daring rescue in 1916, where he and his gas masks saved the lives of 32 people.

He had been written out of the account due to racism, despite that the town Mayor confirmed his ingenuity and heroinism.

Traffic Light History: Note No Mention of Morgan

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.

Chemical Warfare

Chemical warfare refers to using chemicals as a weapon of mass destruction, killing many people at once. Fritz Haber, the inventor of the ammonia extraction process, is also the father of modern chemical warfare.

On Jan. 31, 1915, Germany used a type of tear gas on allied troops. Due to the temperature, the chemicals failed to vaporize.

On Apr. 22, 1915, Germans launched 168 tons of chlorine towards allied positions, killing about 6,000 people and blinding more. Fritz Haber, the scientist personally supervised the release of the chlorine.

Haber’s first wife committed suicide after realizing his role in the countless deaths in WWI.

Haber, who was Jewish but tried converting to Christianity, also invented Zyklon A. That is the poison that would evolve into Zyklon B, used during the Holocaust to murder Haber’s extended family.

Towards the end of his life, the Nazis turned on Haber due to his Jewish origin. After locking him out of his lab, Haber fled Germany and died, soon after, in 1934.

Related image
Haber (pointing) instructing the use of chemical weapons


Bakelite enabled inexpensive mass production at very high tolerances where interchangeable parts matter (ex: telephones, radios, plugs, pens, wristbands, insulators, etc…). Also, it looked fun compared to organic materials in use before Bakelite.

Baekeland’s Bakelite opened the “age of plastics.” It was moldable into any shape and, once molded, kept its shape. It did not react to heat and insulated electricity. Moldable to very tight tolerances, Bakelite was perfect for ever-smaller and more precise interchangeable parts.

Understanding that his patents would eventually expire, Baekeland worked hard branding the trademark Bakelite. After the patents expired, advertising pushed consumers to insist on genuine Bakelite despite that knockoffs were chemically identical.

Thanks to Velox photo paper, Baekeland was already rich when he invented Bakelite. However, his plastic made him fabulously wealthy. In 1939, at age 75, Baekeland sold Bakelite to Union Carbide for $16.5 million.

Later in life, he suffered mental issues, refusing to eat food that did not come from cans and fought with his son. His tombstone is granite but Bakelite seems like it would’ve been a more appropriate choice.

Three Phase Power

One extra wire allows transmission of triple the amount of electricity via three-phase power. With three wires rather than two, electrical operators can transmit triple the electricity. “Polyphase” is another term for three-phase power.

Three phase power usually transmits enormous amounts of electricity. These are the large transmission lines on tall polls. Electricity is converted into two-phase power, more practical for home use, at endpoint stations. Both heavy industry and electric cars use powerful three-phase induction engines.

Markedly, three phase power results in significant cost savings due to the reduced amount of wire needed.

Meters that regulated and measured the electricity spanned many patents. Eventually, Westinghouse acquired virtually all of them to compete with Edison, eventually lighting up the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Tesla’s patents proved to be the most valuable.

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.