February 11, 2022

5 changemakers to recognise this Inventors’ Day

Today marks what former United States President Ronald Reagan deemed “Inventors’ Day” in 1983. 

The President chose the birthday of 1 figure who is likely one of the names that first come to mind when thinking of famous inventors—Thomas Edison. 

At VML, our entire ethos is built upon a continuous drive to build new ways to deliver and experience video. Our own invention is a completely new form of video technology, enabling data and video to converge in real time as the viewer watches. It creates data driven, personalised, interactive, yet fully scalable video unlike any other.

While inventions like the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera were monumental and have a well-deserved level of recognition, read below as we pay homage to just some—and perhaps lesser known—people with seminal contributions to the technology-driven world we live in today.

Lewis Latimer

© 1998 T. A. Charon (Courtesy of Maxwell Library, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts)

Thomas Edison provides a perfect segue to recognise the brilliance of Lewis Latimer. A collaborator with many of the greats including Edison, Latimer played a critical role in the development of the telephone and invented the carbon filament, a vital component of the light bulb. 

Latimer’s parents had escaped slavery prior to the Civil War and faced significant financial struggle. Latimer worked to support his family from a young age, and while largely self-taught, he eventually became“a chief draftsman, patent expert, and inventor through his analytical mind and exceptional powers of observation.”

Despite the educational barriers he faced, Latimer remained dedicated to pursuing technological advancements which would improve opportunities of Black Americans in the post-Civil War era. Like Edison, the importance of “quality of life” was core to all of his inventions. Following stepping into a role at a patent law firm, Latimer taught himself drafting and mechanical drawing by observing the work of the draftsmen.

In addition, alongside Alexander Graham Bell, Latimer “helped draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone.” This work also led to improved railroad car bathroom designs and early air conditioning units. 

Douglas Engelbart

Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

Engelbart is famous for inventing the now old-fashioned, nostalgic, but important computer “mouse”. He also played a crucial role in building computer software which contributed to what users know today as anything relating to video conferencing and user collaboration. 

His presentation on this, famed as "The Mother of All Demos", is a name retroactively applied to this landmark computer demonstration given by Englebart presented at the Association for Computing Machinery/Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1968. 

In 2008, Engelbart informed Wired magazine that mouse button design was a contentious issue, “We tried as many as five. We settled on three. That's all we could fit. Now the three-button mouse has become standard, except for the Mac. Steve Jobs insisted on only one button. We haven't spoken much since then…” 

Katherine Johnson

© NASA/AFP via Getty Images

You might recognise this outstanding inventor from the 2016 film Hidden Figures, or from 2015, when former US President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Known as a human “computer” at NASA, Johnson completed the immensely complex calculations that enabled space flight. Leading up to this, Johnson devoted many years to analyzing data from flight tests as well as investigating the nature of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. Johnson calculated the path for Freedom 7, which put the first US astronaut in space, with astronaut John Glenn verifying this path having been quoted to have said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

Johnson’s work contributed to Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module, the project which landed the first 3 men on the Moon. In addition, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite. 

Ralph Baer

Jens Wolf /DPA /Landov

Known widely as the “Father of Home Video Games”, Ralph Baer’s contributions are what all video game consoles we know today can be traced back to.

Video games have evolved to be a billion-dollar industry, surpassing the movie business in recent years. Popular franchises often sell millions of copies within days of their release. It is important to remember that regardless of how complex and impressive this industry becomes, it can all be traced back to Baer's work and his "Brown Box."

In 1966 Baer wrote a short, four-page concept of a "game box" that would allow people to play games on a television. An executive from Sanders Associates was taken with the idea and gave Baer $2,500 and 2 engineers for collaboration to work on the project. In the years that followed they produced 7 prototypes in a “secret workshop,” before finalising the version that Baer and Sanders used to secure the first video game patent in 1971.

Ada Lovelace

Detail from Margaret Carpenter’s portrait of the pioneering mathematician Ada Lovelace. Photograph: UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

The daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace is known today as the “Princess of Parallelograms,” “Enchantress of Numbers,” and crucially, “The First Computer Programmer”. 

Lovelace’s papers, for example, one exploring a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers, known as “Note G,” is considered to be the first computer program in history.

Her contemporary, Charles Babbage, came up with the idea of the “Analytical Engine”, to which Lovelace contributed through extensive notes and translations. Babbage was a mechanical engineer and mathematician credited with many inventions, including the concept of the first automatic digital computer. He invented what is known as the first automated calculator, or what he deemed a “Difference Machine.” 

Lovelace came to be a significant collaborator when they met at a party in 1883. For example, Lovelace translated a paper written by Luigi Federico Menabrea and continued to expand his original writings from eight thousand words to twenty thousand.

In Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Esq., Lovelace wrote that “Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies imagine that because the business of [Babbage’s Analytical Engine] is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly…”

It is clear that Lovelace’s mother was correct in describing her as “chiefly exercised in connection with her mechanical ingenuity.” 

The team at VML thrive on pushing our tech to solve the latest challenges and opportunities with data-driven video engagement. This blog post could list an endless number of inventors, so while we recognise a few of them, Inventors’ Day is our reminder to appreciate the work of the scientific, mathematical, and technological innovators who made the world what it is today.

Grace Farrell
Content Creator & Copywriter