More than 400 honorees have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations.
The inventions of at least two dozen inductees are connected with agriculture. Not surprisingly, these ag trailblazers are also among the most famous of all inventors.
A new class of honorees is inducted each May into the Hall of Fame, located on the University of Akron campus. Here's a snapshot of a few of the inductees tied to agriculture.
Cyrus McCormick is well-known for inventing the mechanical reaper for harvesting small grain, which he patented in 1834. His invention greatly reduced labor and enabled farmers to significantly increase their acreage.
McCormick's was not the first mechanical harvester. But he successfully combined all of the essential components that earlier harvesting machines had separately performed. He then built a factory in Chicago and began mass manufacture of his machines, founding what became the International Harvester Company. McCormick greatly expanded sales through door-to-door contacts and written guarantees.
He continued to innovate, eventually replacing his initial reaper with a self-propelled combine, operated by a single individual, that cut and threshed the grain in one operation.
John Deere was a skilled blacksmith in Vermont who escaped to Grand Detour, Ill., barely a step ahead of the bill collectors. There, he was besieged by tales of frustration when cast-iron plows that worked so well in light sandy New England soils were ineffective in turning tough sticky prairie soils.
Salvaging an old sawmill blade, he fashioned a highly polished steel plow that cleaned itself as it moved through the field.
The steel plow caught on quickly, and by 1846, Deere and his partner were manufacturing and selling a thousand plows annually. In 1848, Deere moved his operation to Moline, Ill., to take advantage of Mississippi River water power and transportation. Deere continued to improve his design even as sales increased.
George Washington Carver was born to slave parents in Diamond Grove, Mo. He worked as a farmhand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. Denied admission to Highland College because of his race, he was accepted at Iowa State Agricultural College, now Iowa State University.
Booker T. Washington invited Carver to come to Tuskegee Institute to serve as the school's director of agriculture. While at Tuskegee, Carver developed a crop rotation system alternating cotton with nitrogen-producing legumes (peanuts and peas). This enhanced cotton yields, but soon resulted in a surplus of peanuts, as well.
Carver developed 325 different uses for peanuts, ranging from cooking oil to printer's ink. He also discovered new uses for pecans and sweet potatoes.
Luther Burbank had only an elementary school education. But in a 55-year plant breeding career, he developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 plum and prune varieties, 10 berry varieties, 50 lily varieties and the Freestone peach.
The brown-skinned, white-fleshed Burbank potato has become the predominant potato in food processing and is credited with helping combat the potato blight epidemic in Ireland.
Eli Whitney is best known for his invention of the cotton gin that revolutionized Southern agriculture. He laid the groundwork for American mass manufacturing by introducing interchangeable parts in making muskets for the military, although the idea itself is credited to a Frenchman.
The invention of the cotton gin produced prosperity for Southern planters. However, because they freely copied Whitney's design, he never profited from his invention.
Joseph Glidden, as the popular story goes, got the idea for barbed wire after seeing a wood rail with sharp nails protruding along its sides, hanging inside a smooth wire fence. Inspired, Glidden fashioned barbs on an improvised coffee bean grinder, placed them along a smooth wire and twisted
another wire around the first to hold the barbs in a fixed position.
Glidden applied for and received a patent. But he quickly became embroiled in a legal battle with some 570 other patent claims to being the first to invent barbed wire. Glidden won his court challenge and went on to establish the Barb Fence Company in DeKalb, Ill., becoming one of the richest men in America.
John Franz was handed a project other investigators at Monsanto Company would no longer touch—to find an herbicide effective against perennial and annual weeds. Through trial and error, he discovered the glyphosate class of herbicides that eliminates more than 125 weeds.
Glyphosate, originally marketed as Roundup, permitted growers to control weeds after emergence without injuring the crop and opened the door to widespread use of minimal tillage. It also paved the way for genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant crop varieties. It is one of the most widely used herbicides in U.S. and world agriculture.
Herb Boyer and Stan Cohen were at the University of California in San Francisco investigating DNA when they observed that by adding genes from an organism to a simple cell, the genes would replicate in the cell. This discovery led to the development of genetic engineering and launched the multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry. Genetically altered crops are playing a major role in increased food production worldwide.
Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson probably never thought of themselves as agricultural scientists or inventors. But their inventions have significantly impacted agriculture. Getting and Parkinson developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellite-based navigation.
GPS is a navigational system that uses signals from 24 dedicated satellites to pinpoint places with great accuracy. Originally developed for the U.S. military to guide missiles to targets, today GPS systems are found in cars; used by air traffic controllers, farmers and rescue workers; and are available on many mobile phones and handheld devices.
Getting came up with the GPS concept as vice president of research and engineering at the Raytheon Corporation during the 1950s. As manager of the NAVSTAR GPS Joint Program Office from 1972 to 1978, Parkinson was the chief architect of its engineering development and implementation.
Similar arguments can be made for Clarence Birdseye, who developed the process for retailing frozen foods, and Waldo Semon, who invented PVC pipe. Both inventions are of significant value in agriculture.
Other Ag-Related Inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame
- Louis Pasteur (1978): pasteurization process
- Max Tishler (1982): vitamins and antibiotics for poultry nutrition
- Lloyd Conover (1992): tetracycline antibiotic
- Erastus Bigelow (2006): power loom
- Gail Borden Jr. (2006): process for condensed milk
- Karl Bosch (2006): process to produce ammonia
- Fritz Haber (2006): production of ammonia
- John Kellogg (2006): breakfast cereals
- Lewis Miller (2006): improved mowing machines
- Lorenzo Langstroth (2007): modern beehives
- Samuel Slater (2007): spinning machine
- George Crompton (2007): loom for weaving patterned fabrics
- Ruth Benerito (2008): wrinkle-free cotton process