Modern media coverage of technology entrepreneurs has re-imagined what it means to be an innovator as the impact of web engineers and cloud computing transforms whole industries. In fact, much of the technology developed by recent entrepreneurs has helped to transform the media industry itself – creating a sparkling prism through which to view their geeky wizardry.
Early in the 20th century several important innovators paved the way for today’s modern technologists. Lacking instant communications and obscured behind secret military programs, these men advanced technology and scaled their innovations in ways that far surpass their lifespans. The following is a tribute to these unknown innovators.
Leó Szilárd (Hungarian: Szilárd Leó; German: Leo Spitz until age 2; February 11, 1898 – May 30, 1964) was a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein's signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. He also conceived the electron microscope, the linear accelerator (1928, not knowing Gustav Ising's 1924 journal article and Rolf Widerøe's operational device) and the cyclotron. Szilárd himself did not build all of these devices, or publish these ideas in scientific journals, and so credit for them often went to others. As a result, Szilárd never received the Nobel Prize, but others were awarded the Prize as a result of their work on two of his inventions. He was born in Budapest in the Kingdom of Hungary, and died in La Jolla, California.
As a survivor of the political and economic devastation in Hungary following World War I, which had been eviscerated by the Treaty of Trianon, Szilárd developed an enduring passion for the preservation of human life and freedom, especially freedom to communicate ideas.
He hoped that the U.S. government would not use nuclear weapons because of their potential for use against civilian populations. Szilárd hoped that the mere threat of such weapons would force Germany and/or Japan to surrender. He also worried about the long-term implications of the usage of nuclear weapons, predicting that their usage by the United States would start a nuclear arms race with Russia. He drafted the Szilárd petition advocating demonstration of the atomic bomb. However with the European war concluded and the U.S. suffering many casualties in the Pacific Ocean region, the new U.S. President Harry Truman agreed with advisers and chose to use atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki over the protestations of Szilárd and other scientists.
John Bardeen (May 23, 1908 – January 30, 1991) was an American physicist and electrical engineer, the only person to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics twice: first in 1956 with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor; and again in 1972 with Leon N Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory.
The transistor revolutionized the electronics industry, allowing the Information Age to occur, and made possible the development of almost every modern electronic device, from telephones to computers to missiles. Bardeen's developments in superconductivity, which won him his second Nobel, are used in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR) or its medical sub-tool magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Alexander Kartveli, born in Georgia as Alexander Kartvelishvili, (September 9, 1896 – June 20, 1974) was an influential aircraft engineer and a pioneer in American aviation history. Kartveli achieved important breakthroughs in military aviation in the time of turbojet fighters. He is considered to be one of the most important and innovative aircraft designers in US history and the world.
Since Kartveli’s work involved secret military affairs, he was for many years shielded from the public. Information about his work and personality were classified, as there was a general threat from espionage, assassination or kidnapping of scientists and engineers. This situation persisted until after his death. Just recently, Smithsonian and military archives revealed a certain amount of data about his persona and works on requests from Georgian authorities. What emerged is a engineering and design genius whose contributions to air superiority and advances in technology impacted millions of lives and spans several generations. Even today the A-10 Warthog, a Kartveli design, is feared as the most potent close air support fighter aircraft in the world.