From Blackberries to the internet to MP3 players, tech innovations have revolutionized the way modern society communicates, learns, and enjoys life. Tycoons like Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs are household names, but most of us probably can't rattle off who invented some pretty ingenious and life-changing technologies. Let's give it a try and see if you can name the elusive pioneers of these six inventions - one hint: former Vice President Al Gore did not invent any of the following. (Many people want to start a business, but not everyone has what it takes to succeed. For further reading, see Are You An Entrepreneur?)
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While a general manager at Motorola, Dr. Martin Cooper, 81, is credited with leading the team that invented the portable phone in 1973. Motorola was in a race with AT&T's research division, Bell Laboratories. The competition ended on April 3, 1973, when Cooper placed his first call to his rival at AT&T, Joel Engel, on a 10-inch mobile phone weighing roughly two pounds. Ten years later, the first commercial mobile phone entered the market with a sale price of $3,900 (equivalent to $10,000 today). Cooper is also the founder of ArrayComm, a company that builds wireless infrastructures. In recent years, he invented an easy-use cell phone aimed at helping senior citizens called the Jitterbug.
In 1981, after a decade of research, former chemical engineer Adam Osborne developed the first portable computer weighing 23.5 pounds and costing $1,795. It had a full keyboard and a compact five-inch monitor. In a month, the holding company, Osborne Computer Corporation, sold 10,000 computers yielding earnings of an estimated $68 million within a year. But a couple of years later, Apple, Compaq and IBM saturated the market with comparable products, and Osborne's mounting unsold inventory coupled with competitors undercutting prices forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 1983. (These 10 entrepreneurs' names will live on long into the future - perhaps even after their enterprises are gone. Check out The 10 Greatest Entrepreneurs.)
World Wide Web
British engineer Tim Berners-Lee, now commonly dubbed the father of the internet, invented the World Wide Web. It happened while he was charged with devising ways to control computers remotely as an employee at the consulting firm, CERN. While working on a project to control computers via remote, Berners-Lee started plugging away and by the end of 1990, he had written a program which he named "World Wide Web". That was the world's first web browser. Years later, in 2004, Berners-Lee, received a $1.2 million cash prize for his invention.
Croatian programmer Tomislav Uzelac wrote the code known as AMP to create the first successful MP3 player in 1997. Prior to Uzelac's discovery in the early 1990s, the German company Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft developed the MP3 technology, but did not produce a working player. To sell the product on a commercial level, Uzelac co-founded Advanced Multimedia Products (which was later merged into PlayMedia Systems) with entrepreneur Brian Litman.
Steven Sasson, an engineer for Eastman Kodak, is recognized for creating the earliest known digital camera in 1975. This prototype had a resolution of 10,000 pixels and the device took approximately 20 seconds to capture an image. Not until 1988 did a digital camera - the Fuji DS-1P - become available for retail. Three years later, in 1991, Kodak's first digital camera came to the mass market with a whopping price tag of $13,000.
No Credit Given?
Despite making dreams of mobile phones, the internet, laptops and portable music files possible, these five trailblazing inventors are relatively unknown for what they achieved. For each, there may be a reason why. Cooper and Sasson both worked under the names of major U.S. corporations. Osborne's company was a failure even though the idea of a portable computer took flight. Uzelac's breakthrough was eclipsed by two University of Utah students who adapted the AMP code to be compatible with Microsoft's Windows software. Then there's Berners-Lee, a man who didn't want the notoriety. He decided to not patent or commercialize his contribution of creating the world's first internet browser. (If you can learn to juggle course work and cash flow, you'll be ready for anything. Read Top 5 Incentives For Student Startups.)
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The Bottom Line
While the technology world has no shortage of big names, for every Steve Jobs there are thousands of unknown workers involved in everything from development to marketing the products that make a person like Jobs famous. So the next time you turn on your MP3 player or check your email on your phone, just remember the idea behind that technology came from some very under appreciated sources.
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