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Who is the most important inventor in U.S. history?          By Paul Niemann

[JUNE 16, 2005]  In one of the earliest stories that I wrote in this space, I revealed the five most important inventions of all time. These are:

  • Johannes Gutenberg's printing press (invented in the mid-1400s)
  • The discovery and use of electricity
  • Indoor plumbing (early records place its origin between 2500 B.C. and 1700 B.C.)
  • Penicillin, first discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming (1928)
  • The mass-produced automobile (1903)

Today we reveal the most important inventor in our nation's 230-year history, and the answer may surprise you. Since some of our inventors made major contributions to society in ways other than their inventions, we include those contributions.

Where to start? The staff here at Invention Mysteries World Headquarters has already narrowed it down to five inventors. In alphabetical order, they are George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson

George Washington Carver: Born to slaves, Carver faced the most difficult odds of any of these inventors. Born to slaves in Missouri and kidnapped by Confederates, he was known as "The Plant Doctor" and invented more than 300 uses for peanuts. Some of the products resulting from his work are adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, shaving cream, shoe polish and talcum powder. He became head of the Department of Agricultural Research at the Tuskegee Institute at age 36.

Thomas Edison: Once deemed "too stupid to learn" as a 6-year-old by one of his early teachers, Edison turned out to be the most prolific inventor of all time (at least in the United States). He held more than 1,000 patents; some of these led to the creation of brand-new industries, such as the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph. His Menlo Park invention lab became the model that the labs of many innovative companies were patterned after.

Henry Ford: While Ford did not invent the automobile, it was his mass-production method that allowed the masses to own automobiles. This made the mass-produced automobile one of the five greatest inventions of all time. Henry Ford does not compare to Edison as an inventor, nor to Franklin or Jefferson in their overall contributions to society, though.

Ben Franklin: Like Henry Ford, Franklin was also responsible for one of the five greatest inventions of all time. Just as Ford did not invent the automobile, Ben Franklin did not invent electricity, but he showed the world that we could harness its power with his kite-and-key experiment.

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He also signed the Declaration of Independence and co-authored the Treaty of Paris. He established our nation's first fire department and served as our first postmaster general. In addition, Franklin also invented bifocals, the odometer, the lightning rod, the Franklin Stove and the glass harmonica, just to name a few.

He was also the first to suggest the idea of daylight-saving time, which was years ahead of its time. He was the first person to appear on a U.S. postage stamp. He also wrote and published the best-selling book "Poor Richard's Almanack," under the pen name of Richard Saunders, and the book is still available more than 200 years after Franklin's death. Some of his inventions and ideas are still being used today.

Thomas Jefferson: Like Ben Franklin, Jefferson's accomplishments went far beyond his inventions, of which there were many. For example, he was our nation's third president. He helped establish the U.S. patent office in 1790, and he was our nation's first patent commissioner. He also founded the University of Virginia. Oh, yeah, he also wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson's inventions included a moldboard plow, a wheel cipher, a spherical sundial, a portable copying press, automatic double doors, the swivel chair, the dumbwaiter and a macaroni machine. He also introduced french fries, ice cream, waffles and macaroni to the U.S.

So the winner is… Ben Franklin.

I can just see the letters of complaint pouring in already: "How can you choose Ben Franklin over Thomas Edison? Without Edison's light bulb, you wouldn't be able to see in the dark!"

Without Franklin's discovery of electricity, we wouldn't have Edison's light bulbs. Case closed.

"Then why not Thomas Jefferson and all of his inventions, plus the fact that he was a U.S. president? Ben Franklin was not a president."

Since this is a nonscientific contest, we'll settle it in a nonscientific way: Ben Franklin's image is on a $100 bill, while Thomas Jefferson's image is on a $2 bill.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" book, which is available through his website and at fine bookstores everywhere. He may be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

© Copyright Paul Niemann 2005

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