How Four Great Inventors Broke New Ground

Learn what events led Nikola Tesla, Grace Hopper, and others to success

3 April 2017

Like today’s entrepreneurs, innovators of the past faced a number of obstacles, including landing their first job, finding people to believe in their inventions, and obtaining sufficient financial capital to develop their ideas and bring them to market. Here is how several of the world’s most famous innovators got their start.

  • Grace Murray Hopper, 1906–1992

    Known for: Inventing the computer compiler and leading the development of the programming language COBOL (common business-oriented language).

    Why it matters: Hopper is considered one of the founders of the information age. Her compiler, a collection of coded instructions that could be reused, saved programmers from having to write each program anew. It significantly advanced the art of programming. By the late 1970s, COBOL was the most extensively used computer language in the world.

    Where she started: Hopper was a mathematics professor at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when she joined the U.S. Navy Waves (women accepted for voluntary service) program in December 1943. She was commissioned a lieutenant the following year. She was named an IEEE Fellow in 1962 “for contributions in the field of automatic programming.”

    Breakthrough: As a Navy lieutenant, she was assigned in 1944 to program the Mark I Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator at Harvard under Howard Aiken, a computing pioneer. The Mark 1, one of the first programmable computers, is an IEEE Milestone.

  • Werner von Siemens, 1816–1892

    Known for: Advances in large-scale telegraphy and electric cable cars, as well as founding the Siemens Co., now a multinational manufacturing and electronics firm headquartered in Munich.

    Why it matters: His innovations for the telegraph, especially advances in insulation, improved performance, and transformed wireless communications.

    Where he started: Because Siemens’ parents were unable to afford the tuition to send him to university to study engineering, he enlisted in the Prussian army and later studied at the Prussian Military Academy’s School of Artillery and Engineering.

    Breakthrough: He was appointed in 1844 as superintendent of Prussia’s artillery works. In 1847, he and aspiring engineer Johann Georg Halske started the Siemens and Halske Telegraph Construction Co. A year later, the army chose the company to build a 600-kilometer underground telegraph line between Berlin and Frankfurt. Shortly after its installation, Siemens’s telegraph would prove decisive in the German revolutions of 1848 by facilitating rapid communication between the Prussian monarch in Berlin and the General Assembly in Frankfurt.

  • Nikola Tesla, 1856–1943

    Known for: Contributions to the AC electric supply system and inventing the three-phase AC motor, as well as increasing our understanding of rotating magnetic fields’ behavior.

    Why it matters: AC electrification proved economical and paved the way for today’s reliable electric systems.

    Where he started: After dropping out of Graz University, in Austria, in 1877, and Prague’s Karl-Ferdinand University, in 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest.

    Breakthrough: He was hired in 1882 by Ferenc Puskás, a Hungarian nobleman who worked for Thomas Edison, to help install Budapest’s telephone exchange, a telecommunication system conceived by Puskás. Tesla’s uncle, who served in the military with Puskás, introduced them. Tesla was soon hired by Edison’s subsidiary in France, where his work caught the eye of Charles W. Batchelor (an associate of Edison and head of the French Edison subsidiaries), who invited Tesla to the United States. He moved to New York City in 1884 and worked directly with Edison. Tesla was part of the division that was working on arc lighting, which Edison decided was not the technological path that showed the most promise. In 1886 he left Edison’s company and founded Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing, to develop AC motors.

  • Hidetsugu Yagi, 1886–1976

    Known for: Inventing the directional antenna [pictured above], which was named an IEEE Milestone in 1995.

    Why it matters: Directional radio and TV antennas are crucial to shortwave and very-short-wave communications. Yagi antennas have been installed atop tens of millions of homes throughout the world to improve TV reception.

    Where he started: Yagi was a professor of engineering sciences at Tohoku University, in Sendai, Japan.

    Breakthrough: He wrote several seminal papers, including “Generation of Short Wavelength Waves” and “Measuring Specific Wavelengths With Short Wavelengths.” His 1928 paper “Beam Transmission of Ultra Short Waves” on an ultra-high-frequency beam communication system published in Proceedings of the IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessors) is considered fundamental to understanding shortwave transmission.

Robert Colburn is a research coordinator at the IEEE History Center, in Hoboken, N.J.

For more articles by History Center staff members, visit its publications page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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