In the history of technology, inventors have not always been treated kindly. For every Bill Gates or Steven Jobs who makes a lucrative transition from scientist to entrepreneur, there are thousands of great inventors who miss out on fame and fortune altogether. Take Pearl Wait, the Le Roy, New York, cough syrup maker who invented Jell-O in 1897. Selling it door-to-door, he couldn’t give the fruit-flavored gelatin away, so he relinquished the rights to a neighbor for $450. Nine years later Jell-O sales reached nearly $1 million; today, if all the Jell-O boxes made in a 20-month period were put end to end, they’d stretch around the world. Then there’s Edwin Armstrong, the engineer who invented fm radio in 1933. At first, radio companies rejected Armstrong’s innovation. Later, when fm’s superior reception proved apparent, they appropriated the technology without paying him. Armstrong sued, but after five years of litigation he ran out of money and killed himself. (His estate ultimately collected more than $10 million.)
At Discover we hardly have the power to enrich inventors, but we do have the power to help rescue their names from obscurity. Eight years ago we started the annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation to recognize and applaud scientists and engineers who are the unsung heroes of our technological age. This year we invited more than 4,000 corporate, academic, and government research centers to nominate innovative technologies and identify the men and women behind them. Our editors whittled down the nominees to 33 finalists in seven categories: Automotive and Transportation, Aviation and Aerospace, Computer Hardware and Electronics, Computer Software, Environment, Sight, and Sound. The finalists were turned over to experts who selected seven winners.
An eighth award, the Editors’ Choice Award for Emerging Technology, was given by Discover’s editors to a technology so novel that its applications are far from clear. This year we gave two such awards, both in the field of nanotechnology.