Special Report

21 Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century

Angelo Young, Michael B. Sauter

Source: Yuuji / Getty Images

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.

Source: AlexLMX / Getty Images

7. Modern artificial pancreas

More formally known as closed-loop insulin delivery system, the artificial pancreas has been around since the late ’70s, but the first versions were 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. In December 2019, the FDA approved an even more advanced version of the artificial pancreas, called Control-IQ, developed by UVA.

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.

Source: PhonlamaiPhoto / Getty Images

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 organism’s DNA. This discovery heralded a new era in 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 their 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.