The 50 Best Inventions

The year's most inspired ideas, innovations and revolutions, from the microscopic to the stratospheric

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Phillip Toledano / Trunk Archive

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But somewhere in that creative scrum is somebody — or several somebodies — who's thinking really different. When Jobs looked at a smart phone, what he saw was a better smart phone, and that's all well and good. But you have to think truly different(ly) to look at sour milk and see a new textile, which is what the German biologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske did. Or to use electricity to put out fires rather than start them, as Harvard researcher Ludovico Cademartiri does. What if you could refocus a picture after you took it? Lytro's Light Field camera can. What if you could use an fMRI machine to capture a picture straight from someone's imagination? It's been done. Gallant did it.

Who looks at an ordinary lightbulb and sees a wireless data transmitter that could replace wi-fi? Who looks at a giant incinerator and sees an even more giant ski slope? Those aren't ordinary thoughts. They're not even different — they're downright weird. Jobs' genius lay in figuring out how to make things actually do what they were supposed to do, but inventors do something else. They make things do what they're not supposed to do — what's not even supposed to be possible.

We live in an age when inventors are cheap. They're a necessary evil, a manufacturing by-product to be discarded as soon as their patents are safely in the hands of the optimizers. But let's take a second to remember how much we need them. A lot of the things you'll see in this feature aren't pretty; it's a rough draft of the future, unoptimized. One day someone like Jobs will take it as raw material to be tamed and refined and turned into something that will change the world. But not yet. This is the uncut, unprocessed ore of invention, straight from the idea guys, who got it straight from the gods themselves.


LESS THAN 10 NANOMETERS (ONE MOLECULE) | We thought it couldn't be done, but scientists at MIT are developing a drug that may cure the common cold. It's called double-stranded RNA activated caspase oligomerizer, or DRACO, and it fights viruses as effectively as antibiotics fight bacteria. DRACO is a genetically engineered molecule designed to trigger suicide in cells that have been invaded by a virus. In lab tests, it was effective against 15 viruses, including rhinovirus, which causes colds; H1N1 influenza; dengue fever; and poliovirus.


22 NANOMETERS | A technology revolution occurred this year, and almost nobody outside the high-tech world noticed. In May, Intel demonstrated what it's calling a Tri-Gate transistor: a three-dimensional transistor in which electrons flow not just in a flat channel but along three sides of a raised fin. Why should you care? Because next year, when Intel ships its first chips based on the new 3-D transistor, they'll perform about 37% better and use about half the power. Another victory for Moore's law.

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