November 20, 2013 1:05PM

Thank Inventors and Innovators for a Better Life

Hans Riegel recently died at age 90. He changed the world for the better. He brought us the treat known as gummi bears. 

Politicians routinely crusade against wealth and inequality, but that occurs naturally when people create products and offer services benefiting the rest of us.   

Today people live on their cell phones. Once we didn’t even have telephones. Thank Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

The internal combustion engine auto came from Karl Benz. He was a design engineer who in 1886 won a patent for a “motor car.” 

In 1903, Clarence Crane created the hard fruit candy known as Life Savers. 

Helen Greiner, a fan of Star Wars’ R2D2, came up with the Roomba vacuum cleaner robot in 2002. 

John Mauchly and John Eckert created the first computer in 1946—the Electronic Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. 

Thomas Edison gave us working light bulbs in 1879. Joseph Swan might have beaten Edison, but the latter bought Swan’s patent. 

The 3-D printer was created in 1983 by Chuck Hall. His first creation: a tea cup. 

General Electric engineer James Wright attempted to make artificial rubber during World War II. He failed, but ad man Peter Hodgson later discovered the malleable material and began selling Silly Putty.

While developing magnetrons for radar in World War II, Percy Spencer noticed that a candy bar in his pocket melted. The result was the microwave oven.

Credit for television goes to Russian émigré Vladimir Zworykin. In 1920 he developed an iconoscope, or television transmission tube, and kinescope, a television receiver. 

That same year Austrian Eduard Hass developed the peppermint candy, “pfefferminz” in German, known as PEZ. 

The Scottish Charles Macintosh came up with the waterproof Mackintosh Raincoat. A store clerk turned chemist, in 1823 he figured out how to make waterproof fabric.

Infections once were common killers. But in 1928 another Scot, Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin.

Edward Binney and Harold Smith owned an industrial pigment company and in 1903 combined industrial pigments with paraffin wax. By 1996, 100 billion crayons had been produced.

In 1935, Frederick McKinley Jones developed portable air-conditioning for trucks. Jones became the first African-American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.

John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, developed Coca Cola’s original formula in 1885, in response to a ban on the sale of his wine-coca “patent medicine.” 

Canadian-born James Naismith studied theology and worked at a Massachusetts YMCA. In 1891, he relied on a childhood game to develop basketball as a sport to be played indoors in the winter. 

In 1884, Lewis Waterman developed the fountain pen. He took ten years to perfect his invention.

Arthur Fry gave the world the “Post-It Note” in 1974. He was both a chemist at 3M and wanted a bookmark that would cling to church hymnal pages. He thought of a failed glue created by a colleague. 

Ruth Wakefield, regionally famous for her cooking, ran out of baker’s chocolate while making cookies and in 1930 substituted chunks of semi-sweet chocolate. Her recipe increased chocolate sales and became known to Nestle, which consequently created chocolate chips. 

In 1964, while seeking a new synthetic fiber, Stephanie Kwolek came up with the well-nigh indestructible Kevlar—commonly part of bullet-proof vests.

John Harvey Kellogg was a vegetarian who headed a Michigan sanitarium. Faced with wheat gone stale, in 1894 he processed it into dough anyway and ended up with flakes.

These are just a few of the inventions which surround and enrich us.  Human creativity and ingenuity—punctuated with a mix of luck and hard work—constantly transform our lives.

As I pointed out in my latest Forbes online column:

Few things better illustrate Adam Smith’s axiom that people can simultaneously benefit the rest of us while pursuing their own interest. Of course people should do good.  But they often do best while trying to advance themselves. 

Some inventors just love to create. Others hope for money, glory, or something else. Whatever their motives, the rest of us gain.

Like being able to enjoy gummi bears. Hans Riegel, RIP!