Inspiring Veteran-Inventors to Honor this Veterans Day
Veterans Day is an opportunity to honor the men and women who have sacrificed—and currently sacrifice—so much for our country and the protection of our freedom. Protecting our country isn’t their only specialty. One would not ordinarily associate Veterans Day with inventors, but, as it turns out, several American veterans turned inventors changed the world with their novel ideas and created extraordinary inventions that greatly advanced society.
Take, for instance, John Goodenough. Pretty sure no one has heard of his extraordinary contribution to today’s communications technologies. In fact, modern society would look very different without his inventive efforts. Cell phones, laptops, digital cameras all depend upon rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. But when these batteries first were developed, they frequently exploded. Along came World War II meteorologist turned inventor, John Goodenough, who solved that problem. He and his research team tested various chemical compounds and discovered a stable combination known as cobalt oxide. This veteran’s efforts ultimately led to the cobalt-oxide cathode, the crucial component of lithium-ion batteries—transforming the world of electronics as we now know it.
Another World War II vet who served as a military radioman, Wilson Greatbach, went on to attend Cornell University as part of the GI Bill. As an American engineer, he held 150 patents related to the implantable pacemaker. His inventive contributions resulted in 3 million pacemakers implanted around the world, with an additional 600,000 being implanted every year. Before Greatbach’s technology, pacemakers were bulky external units—he miniaturized the device for human implantation.
Veteran Norman Woodland was a member of the Army Air Corp who worked as a technician on the Manhattan Project. He is best known, however, for inventing the optical scanning barcode. In 1948, he and his classmates overheard supermarket executives and college professors talking about how to automatically process inventory and product sales in their stores. His college wasn’t interested in developing such a product, but Woodland was captivated by the idea. He developed the initial plans for a barcoding system; however, it took until 1974 for the first barcode to be scanned in a grocery store.
Most of us have heard of George Westinghouse and the Westinghouse Electric Company. Before becoming a well-known inventor, Westinghouse enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War at the age of 17, served a year, then joined the Union Navy as an engineer. After the War, Westinghouse created remarkable inventions that advanced the American frontier, including the adoption of alternating electrical power transmission. He also held patents for a rotary steam engine (1865), a railway brake (1869), and 38 patents for safe transport of natural gas (1883).
A more recent inventor, U.S. Army Sgt. Gary Walters, lost his leg when he stepped on an exploded IED. He found that the limb to socket interface of the prosthetic leg he wore often became hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Along with a team of eight other business people, Sgt. Walters formed a company and discovered a remedy: the patented Alquiloix™ Prosthesis Cooling System. His invention keeps the prosthetic’s interface cool, dry and comfortable for all those veterans who have sacrificed their limbs in service to our country.
Finally, a World War I veteran, Laurens Hammond, made a spectacular splash on popular culture by inventing his aptly-named electric organ. Manufactured in 1935, and still in use today, the Hammond organ was a sensational alternative to more expensive and cumbersome wind-driven pipe organs. When Jimmy Smith, the legendary jazz musician, hit the charts playing the Hammond organ, the instrument became a cultural icon. The organ isn’t Hammond’s only invention; he also invented the Hammond electric clock and held 110 patents in his name when he died.
So, this Veteran’s Day, as we reflect on the long history of veterans who sacrificed and died for our freedom and our republic, let’s also honor the incredible contributions to the advancements of science and technology made by our venerable veterans.