The first step toward a successful career is often the hardest. Sometimes it takes a little bit of luck—perhaps a missed entrance exam, a military assignment, or a fellowship awarded at just the right time. Here is how four famous innovators got their start.
Robert C. Sprague (son of Frank), 1900–1991
Best known for: Sprague’s reliable capacitors and components were used in many electrical devices. Capacitors are fundamental for storing and discharging electricity. He also founded Sprague Specialties, later known as Sprague Electric Co., in Quincy, Mass.
Why it matters: Sprague components were especially important in the computer advances made in the 1950s through the 1970s. Although the company was broken up in the 1980s, many of its subsidiaries were sold to other companies, where they continue today.
Where he started: Sprague’s story was not the typical one of a son continuing his father’s business; instead he invented his own devices and began his own company. (To learn more, check out Sprague Electric: An Electronic Giant's Rise, Fall, and Life After Death, written by Robert Sprague’s son, John L. Sprague, and published by the IEEE History Center.)
Breakthrough: While an officer in the U.S. Navy, Sprague oversaw the design and construction of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington at the Charlestown Navy Yard, in Massachusetts. During that time, he invented a tone-control device for radios, and he patented a variable capacitor. He and his wife, Florence, began making the devices in their kitchen in Quincy. In 1926 he incorporated his company as Sprague Specialties, which then quickly expanded.
Jenny Rosenthal Bramley, 1909–1997
Best known for: Helping to develop the Breit-Rosenthal correction, which is used to determine the radii of nuclei. It led to advances in night vision, electro-optics, spectroscopy, design of electroluminescent devices for image processing and storage, and other applications of mathematical techniques for engineering. Bramley published under her maiden name, Rosenthal. In 1966 she became the second woman to be elevated to IEEE Fellow.
Why it matters: Bramley’s research led to several improvements in information displays, especially those that incorporate phosphors. She garnered 18 patents during her career and invented a microwave pumped high-efficiency lamp (used with high-efficiency lasers). She also developed techniques for coding and decoding visual information—which found applications in fingerprint identification. She was tireless in her efforts to encourage women and girls to pursue scientific and technical careers.
Where she started: Born in Moscow to Lithuanian parents, she left the country as part of the Lithuania–Soviet Union prisoner exchange of 1920. In 1926, at age 16, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Paris. She went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from New York University in 1927 and 1929.
Breakthrough: The U.S. National Research Council Fellowships were established in 1919 by the Rockefeller Foundation to promote excellence in scientific and technological research. The fellowships provided one of the few paths for women who wished to pursue scientific careers at the time. As an NRC fellow, Bramley did important research at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and later under Enrico Fermi, inventor of the first nuclear reactor. When World War II broke out, Bramley became a physicist in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Jeanne Clare Adams, 1921–2007
Best known for: Her work on the American National Standards Institute’s standards committee and the introduction of array and vector processing in the Fortran programming language.
Why it matters: Arrays—data structures consisting of a collection of elements (values or variables) that are identified by at least one array index or key—produce useful data for scientific computations, simplify engineering calculations, and have contributed to the development of what is now called big data. Vector processors were later used in supercomputers for environmental monitoring, groundwater monitoring, seismic exploration, and other areas. Software applications such as Matlab are descended from Fortran’s array-handling capabilities.
Where she started: After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1943 from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Adams served as a systems analyst for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
Breakthrough: As a systems analyst, she worked with applications that contained large amounts of data—which gave her firsthand experience in creating ways to handle arrays. She realized the importance of including array processing in programming languages, especially Fortran.
Robert Colburn is a research coordinator at the IEEE History Center, in Hoboken, N.J.