Special Report

21 Most Important American Inventions of the 21st Century

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The human race has in a relatively short period of time traveled a path of innovation that took us from making fire and stone-tipped arrows on the plains of Africa to building smartphone apps and autonomous robots worldwide. Technological progress is not only continuing but is arguably accelerating, especially in areas that could quickly change the way we work, live, and survive in the coming decades.

In the past 20 years alone, the world has witnessed the emergence of social media, smartphones, self-driving cars, and autonomous flying vehicles, as well as huge leaps in energy storage, artificial intelligence, and medical science. Men and women have mapped the human genome and are grappling with the ramifications of biotechnology and gene editing. We are facing immense challenges in global warming and food security, too, all the while keeping guard against whatever diseases or epidemics nature could throw at us at any time.

24/7 Wall St. examined media reports and other sources on the latest far-reaching innovations to find the most important 21st-century inventions that originate in the United States. In some cases, there were some precursor research and ancillary technologies before 2001, but the innovation did not become available to the public until later. This list focuses on the innovation (such as touch screen glass) that supports products rather than the specific products themselves (like the iPhone).

Click here to see the 21 most important American innovations of the 21st century.

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

1. 3D printing

Most inventions come as a result of previous ideas and concepts, and 3D printing is no different. The earliest application of the layering method used by today’s 3D printers took place in the manufacture of topographical maps in the late 19th century and 3D printing as we know it began in 1980. But the convergence of cheaper manufacturing methods and open-source software has led to a revolution of 3D printing in recent years that’s being used in the production of everything from lower-cost car parts to bridges to less painful ballet slippers and even artificial organs.


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2. Artificial pancreas

More formally known as closed-loop insulin delivery system, the artificial pancreas has been around since the late ’70s, but it was the size of a filing cabinet. In recent years, the artificial pancreas, used primarily to treat type 1 diabetes, became portable. The first artificial pancreas (the modern, portable kind) was approved for use in the United States in 2016. The system continuously monitors blood glucose levels, calculates the amount of insulin required, and automatically delivers it through a small pump. British studies have shown that patients using these devices spent more time in their ideal glucose-level range.

Source: Olivia Harris / Getty Images

3. Augmented reality

Augmented reality, in which digital graphics are overlaid onto live footage to convey information in real time, has been around for a while. Only recently, however, following the arrival of more powerful computing hardware and the creation of an open source video tracking software library known as ARToolKit that the technology has really taken off. Smartphone apps like the Pokémon Go game and Snapchat filters are just two small popular examples of modern augmented reality applications. The technology is being adopted as a tool in manufacturing, health care, travel, fashion, and education.

Source: Getty Images / Getty Images

4. Birth control patch

The early years of the millennia have brought about an innovation in family planning, albeit one that is still focused only on women and does nothing to protect against sexually transmitted infections. Still, the birth control patch was first released in the United States in 2002 and has made it much easier for women to prevent unintended pregnancies. The plastic patch contains the same estrogen and progesterone hormones found in birth control pills, and delivers them in the same manner as nicotine patches do to help people quit tobacco products.


Source: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

5. Blockchain

You’ve likely read about it even if you don’t fully understand it. The simplest explanation of blockchain is that it is an incorruptible way to record transactions between parties, a shared digital ledger that parties can only add to and that is transparent to all members of a peer-to-peer network where the blockchain is logged and stored. The technology was first deployed in 2008 to create Bitcoin, the first decentralized cryptocurrency, but has since been adopted by the financial services and other industries for myriad uses, including money transfers, supply chain monitoring, and food safety.

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6. Capsule endoscopy

Advancements in light emitting electrodes, image sensors, and optical design in the ’90s led to the emergence of capsule endoscopy, first used in patients in 2001. The technology uses a tiny wireless camera the size of a vitamin pill that the patient swallows. As the capsule traverses the digestive system, doctors can examine the gastrointestinal system in a far less intrusive manner. Capsule endoscopy can be used to identify the source of internal bleeding, inflammations of the bowel ulcers, and cancerous tumors.


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7. Emergency braking systems

Some of the same technologies used in robotic self-driving “smart” car prototypes are rapidly appearing in today’s “dumb” cars, most notably as sensor-based crash-avoidance systems. These systems vary by car model, typically involving lane-departure and blind-spot warnings. But the most significant innovation to emerge in recent years is automatic emergency braking (or AEB), a system of on-board radar and cameras that automatically detects imminent forward crashes and applies the brakes if the driver does not respond. This technology has proved to be so effective that virtually all cars sold in the United States will have AEB by the end of 2023.

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8. E-readers

Sony was the first company to release an e-reader using a so-called microencapsulated electrophoretic display, commonly referred to as e-ink. E-ink technology, which mimics ink on paper that is easy on the eyes and consumes less power, had been around since the ’70s (and improved in the ’90s), but the innovation of e-readers had to wait until after the broader demand for e-books emerged. Sony was quickly overtaken by Amazon’s Kindle after its 2007 debut. The popularity of e-readers has declined with the emergence of tablets and smartphones, but they still command loyalty from bookworms worldwide.

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9. Gene editing

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and a separate team from Harvard and the Broad Institute independently discovered in 2012 that a bacterial immune system known as CRISPR (an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) could be used as a powerful gene-editing tool to make detailed changes to any organisms’ DNA. This discovery heralded a new era of biotechnology. The discovery has the potential to eradicate diseases – for example by altering the genes in mice and mosquitoes to combat the spread of Lyme disease and malaria – but is also raising ethical questions, especially with regards to human gene editing such as for reproductive purposes.


Source: photo: Qurren Taken with Canon IXY 10S / Wikimedia Commons

10. High-density battery packs

Tesla electric cars have received so much attention largely because of its batteries. The batteries, located underneath the passenger cabin, consist of thousands of high-density lithium ion cells, each barely larger than a standard AA battery, nestled into a large, heavy battery pack that also offers Tesla electric cars a road-gripping low center of gravity and structural support. The brainchild of Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel, these battery modules pack more of a punch than standard (and cheaper) electric car batteries. These packs are also being used in residential, commercial, and grid-scale energy storage devices.

Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images

11. Internet of Things

Also known as IoT, the Internet of Things is loosely defined as an interconnection of everyday objects that can send and receive data. The concept was reportedly first described by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy in a 1999 presentation, in which he called it the D2D Web (D2D stand for device to device). While IoT is now often found in everyday smart consumer devices like door locks and kitchen appliances, the real opportunities (and cyber security challenges) of IoT are in other areas, such as the “fourth industrial revolution” — a new era of technology driven by advancement in artificial intelligence, robotics, and more — as well as the possibilities IoT provides for “smart city” infrastructure, such as traffic lights that communicate with each other to help smooth traffic flow.


Source: Photo By Getty Images

12. Robot heart

Artificial hearts have been around for some time. They are mechanical devices connected to the actual heart or implanted in the chest to assist or substitute a heart that is failing. Abiomed, a Danvers, Massachusetts-based company, developed a robot heart called AbioCor, a self-contained apparatus made of plastic and titanium. AbioCor is a self-contained unit with the exception of a wireless battery pack that is attached to the wrist. Robert Tools, a technical librarian with congestive heart failure, received the first one on July 2, 2001.

Source: Photo by Randy Montoya / Sandia National Laboratories / Getty Images

13. Retinal implant

When he was a medical student, Dr. Mark Humayun watched his grandmother gradually lose her vision. The ophthalmologist and bioengineer focused on finding a solution to what causes blindness. He collaborated with Dr. James Weiland, a colleague at the USC Gayle and Edward Roski Eye Institute, and other experts to create the Argus II. The Argus II is a retinal prosthesis device that is considered to be a breakthrough for those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal degenerative condition that can lead to blindness. The condition afflicts 1.5 million people worldwide. The device was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2013.

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14. Mobile operating systems

Smartphones and other mobile gadgets caught on very quickly and are ubiquitous today — and mobile operating systems for smartphones and other portable gadgets – with their intuitive user interfaces and seemingly endless app options – have become the most consumer-facing of computer operating systems. When Google first purchased Android Inc. in 2005, the operating system that bears the company’s name was just two years old, and the first iPhone (with its iOS) was still two years from its commercial debut.

Source: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

15. Multi-use rockets

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk may not necessarily be remembered for his contributions to electric cars innovations, but rather for his contributions to space exploration. Musk’s private space exploration company, SpaceX, has developed rockets that can be recovered and reused in other launches — a more efficient and cheaper alternative to the method of using the rockets only once as they fall into the ocean.

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX became the first to deploy one of these used rockets. That same Falcon 9 rocket was used a third time last December. In 2020, Blue Origin, a space-transport company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, is expected to launch its own reusable rocket.


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16. Online streaming

Online streaming would not be possible without the convergence of widespread broadband internet access and cloud computing data centers used to store content and direct web traffic. While internet-based live streaming has been around almost since the internet was broadly adopted in the ’90s, it was not until the mid-2000s that the internet could handle the delivery of streaming media to large audiences. Online streaming is posing an existential threat to existing models of delivering media entertainment, such as cable television and movie theaters.

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17. Robotic exoskeletons

Ever since researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, created in 2003 a robotic device that attaches to the lower back to augment strength in humans, the demand for robotic exoskeletons for physical rehabilitation has increased, and manufacturing has taken off. Wearable exoskeletons are increasingly helping people with mobility issues (particularly lower body paralysis), and are being used in factories. Ford Motor Company, for example, has recently used an exoskeleton vest that helps auto assemblers with repetitive tasks in order to lessen the wear and tear on shoulders and arms.


Source: Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

18. Small satellites

As modern electronics devices have gotten smaller, so, too, have orbital satellites, which companies, governments, and organizations use to gather scientific data, collect images of Earth, and for telecommunications purposes. These tiny, low-cost orbital devices fall into different categories by weight, but one of the most common is the shoebox-sized CubeSat. As of January 2019, 2,146 satellites weighing between 1 kg (2.2 lbs) and 40 kgs (88 lbs) have been launched, according to Nanosats Database. SpaceX broke a record last year by sending 64 small satellites into orbit from one launch vehicle.

Source: kylemcdonald / Flickr

19. Solid-state lidar

Lidar is an acronym that stands for light detection and ranging, and is also a portmanteau of the words “light” and “radar.” The technology today is most often used in self-driving cars. Like radars, which use radio waves to bounce off objects and determine their distance, lidar uses a laser pulse to do the same. By sending enough lasers in rotation, it can create a constantly updated high-resolution image map of the surrounding environment. The next steps in the technology would include smaller and cheaper lidar sensors, and especially solid state ones — no spinning tops on the cars.

Source: RG-vc / Getty Images

20. Tokenization

If you have ever used the chip embedded in a credit or debit card to make a payment by tapping rather than swiping, then you have benefited from the heightened security of tokenization. This data security technology replaces sensitive data with an equivalent randomized number – known as a token – that is used only once per transaction and has no value to would-be hackers and identity thieves attempting to intercept transaction data as it travels from sender to recipient. Social media site classmates.com was reportedly the first to use tokenization, in 2001, to protect its subscribers’ sensitive data. Tokenization is also being touted as a way to prevent hackers from interfering with driverless cars.


Source: Mario Tama / Getty Images

21. Touchscreen glass

Super-thin, chemically strengthened glass is a key component of the touchscreen world. This sturdy, transparent material is what helps keep your iPad or Samsung smartphone from shattering into pieces at the slightest drop. Even if these screens crack, in most cases the damage is cosmetic and the gadget still works. Corning Inc., already a leader in the production of treated glass used in automobiles, was asked by Apple to develop 1.3-mm treated glass for its iPhone, which debuted in 2007. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is still the most well known, though other brands exist in the marketplace.

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