The Top 25 Innovations of the Last 25 Years | Popular Science
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The Top 25 Innovations of the Last 25 Years

Of the 2,500 Best of What’s New winners we’ve anointed since 1988, these are the innovations that have made the greatest impact and kept us safer, healthier, and (dare we way) happier than we could have ever been without them.

Ever since we inaugurated the Best of What's New (BOWN) awards 25 years ago, the bar we as editors set for our honorees has remained extremely high. Looking back over the 2,500 BOWN-winning products and breakthroughs shows us a history of innovation over the last 25 years. Within that history are digital cameras, smartphones, drones, private space planes, HIV drugs, genome sequencers, personal robots, space stations, electric cars, wireless internet connections, HDTVs, electronic books, MP3 players, and Mars landings.

Selecting the 25 most-important innovations from this auspicious group is no small task, so we called in reinforcements. We assembled a panel of nine BOWN editors (past and present) to sift through our roster of winners and select those innovations that have had the greatest, most-lasting impact.

With years of collective BOWN experience in the room--an unprecedented reunion--we whittled the list from 2,500 to 25. If the bar to get into BOWN any given year is high, than the bar to be dubbed among the best since 1988 is stupendous. In the end, we all agreed on one thing: We can't imagine a world without these 25 inventions. Nor would we wish to.

Panelists

Lauren Aaronson
Lauren Aaronson was an editor at Popular Science four years and co-ran Best of What's New in 2009 and 2010. She's now an exhibit researcher at the Liberty Science Center (http://www.lsc.org), where she's working on an upcoming exhibit about the Rubik's Cube.

Eric Adams
Eric Adams is a senior editor at Men's Health. He develops departments and manages the magazine's technology coverage and edits its annual 25-page Tech Guide in December. He is the editor of TechLust, the brand's online technology site, which also hosts his blog, Man & Machine. Prior to this, Adams was the aviation, automotive, and military editor at Popular Science, a senior editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian, and an associate editor at Architecture.

Scott Alexander
Scott was a senior editor at Popular Science from 2002 to 2004. During that time he edited What's New and Best of What's New. Prior to PopSci he worked at iVillage, Ziff Davis and CNET. After PopSci he freelanced and held staff positions at Playboy and American Photo.

Joe Brown
Joe is the editor-in-chief of technology supersite Gizmodo. Before joining Gizmodo he was an editor at WIRED Magazine. Before that: Popular Science, where he worked on BOWN for three years. Huzzah!

Mike Haney
Mike capped a seven-year career at Popular Science as executive editor, and helped create PopSci's digital publishing platform, Mag+, along with Bonnier's R&D team. After serving as Deputy Director of R&D, he later co-founded the Mag+ company. Today he helps decide where the platform should go next, and helps its more than 600 clients figure out what they should do with it, serving as the editorial voice among the techies. He maintains a soft spot in his heart for Popular Science, where he lingers on the masthead as contributing innovation editor.

Corinne Iozzio
Corinne is a senior associate editor at Popular Science in charge of the What's New section and Best of What's New. Before joining PopSci as an associate editor in 2009, she worked as an editor on the consumer-electronics reviews team at PCMag.com. Corinne also oversees other PopSci awards programs, including the CES Products of the Future and the Best of Toy Fair.

Suzanne Kantra
Suzanne is the Founder and editor-in-chief of Techlicious, a consumer technology media company. Prior to launching Techlicious in June 2009, Suzanne was the technology editor for Popular Science and Martha Stewart Living and served as the host of "Living with Technology" on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Suzanne is also a regular contributor to Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living Radio, N_BCNews.com/Today.com_ and USAToday.com.

Bill Phillips
Bill is the Editor of MensHealth.com and the executive editor of Men's Health magazine. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of Men's Health Living, a popular but ill-fated (thanks, Great Recession) men's shelter magazine published in 2007 and 2008. Before joining Men's Health in 2003, Phillips was the executive editor of Popular Science, where he oversaw and edited Best of What's New between 1999 and 2002.

Dawn Stover
Dawn is a freelance science and environmental writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She is a contributing editor at Popular Science, where she was on staff from 1986 to 2006—first as an associate editor and later as a senior editor, articles editor, and science editor. She has also worked at Harper's and Science Digest magazines, and is currently a contributing editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Her work has appeared in a variety of other publications including The New York Times, Scientific American, New Scientist, Conservation, Outside, and Backpacker.

B-2 Bomber, 1988

The first Grand Award we gave out in the Aviation category went to the most iconic warplane in a generation. The Northrop-Grumman-built B-2 can fly inside enemy lines without any radar detection, has a range of 6,000 nautical miles, and can carry payloads up to 20 tons. The hull is fashioned from a composite that absorbs radio waves, and its curved edges also help deflect signals, so they won't return to their source. There are still 20 B-2s in the Air Force's fleet.

Sun World International Seedless Watermelon, 1988

We couldn't have said it better ourselves, except that, well, we did say it ourselves: "If you had just three wishes, surely one of them would be for a seedless watermelon. Right? Right. Actually, watermelons without those pesky big, black seeds were developed about 50 years ago. But now Sun World International of Indio, California, the company that brought you Red Flame seedless grapes, has developed a variety of seedless watermelon that it claims has greatly improved texture and taste." Yeah, still pretty sold on this one.

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Delco Moraine ABS V1, 1990

Antilock brakes are at the heart of any traction-control system, and in 1990 Delco Moraine released an ABS system that was affordable enough for manufacturers to install in any car. GM was the first car maker to use the system, which attached easily to existing brakes. Modern ABS and traction-control systems all work on a model similar to the ABS V1: a central controller monitors the rotation of the car's wheels; when the system senses a differential in the RPMs, it signals pressure valves to either slow down or speed up the offending wheels.

Kodak Digital Camera System, 1991

Built around the body of a Nikon F3, the Digital Camera System was the first to put the "D" in front of "SLR." Kodak engineers replaced the back of the Nikon shooter with a digital panel that contained a 1.3 megapixel color or monochrome image sensor. Pictures were piped from the camera directly to an attached hard drive with a preview screen. Though modern cameras are substantially more compact and self-contained, at the core, they all function much like the original Kodak system.

Sylvania 18-watt Compact Fluorescent, 1991

Incandescent bulbs were on their way out long before the Energy Independence and Security Act levied their death sentence. Before LEDs, compact fluorescent bulbs were the greener go-to, but until 1991 many of them were too big to fit into most light fixtures. Sylvania's 2-inch-wide 18-watt CFL was the first to buck that trend. The $20 bulb produced a soft white light, equivalent to a 75-watt incandescent.

Channel Tunnel (Chunnel), 1994

After six years of construction, the Chunnel opened in 1994. The 31-mile passage connects England to France across the floor of the English Channel. About 23.5 miles of the tunnel are underground, the longest such section ever built. The tunnel consists of three tubes, one each for freight and passenger trains with a smaller service tunnel between them. The Eurostar passenger line now transports as many as 17 million travelers through the tunnel every year, and Eurotunnel ships upwards of 17 million tons of freight.

Mosaic XS web browser, 1994

Before Mosaic, Web surfing really wasn't a thing. The browser was the first one to display image in-line with text (instead of in a separate window), thus making the Web easier—and more pleasant—to read and navigate. Mosaic's designers also made the browser compatible with Windows, helping it emass a reported 53 percent market share. Though Mosaic was soon overtaken my Netscape Navigator and eventually died out, much of its design is still mirrored in the most-popular modern browsers, including Firefox and Chrome.

Teledyne Ryan Tier II Plus Spy Drone, 1995

To achieve more-accurate weapons targeting and successful force protection in the field, the Air Force needed a plane like the Teledyne Ryan Tier II. The radar-, infrared-, and video-equipped spy plane could fly 3,400 from base, gather intel for a full 24 hours, and return home. The drone would later become the Global Hawk, the Air Force's first high-altitude endurance UAV. Its successors have been flown by the Navy, NASA, NATO, and the German Air Force.

Protease Inhibitors, 1996

One of the biggest steps in treating HIV was the development of a drug that would prevent the virus from multiplying. Protease inhibitors jam up the enzyme that allows the cells to replicate. When we first awarded the drugs in 1996, the FDA has just approved the first formulations from Merck and Abbot Labs. Since then, several others have reached market, and doctors continue to prescribe the drugs as part of HIV/AIDS-management therapies.

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Fujitsu QFTV Gas Plasma Display TV, 1997

For years, Hollywood had tantalized us with images of the future: high-tech homes with TVs so slim and light you could hang them on the wall. In 1997, Fujitsu was the first TV maker to make good on that dream. The four-inch-thick 42-inch QFTV produced an image when current passed through gas plasma sandwiched between two panes of glass. Although LCD TVs currently dominate the HDTV market, plasma sets like the QFTV are what first moved the thin-sharp-and-light goalpost for the entire marketplace.

HeartStream ForeRunner Portable Defibrillator, 1997

For every minute a patient's heart isn't revived after a sudden cardiac arrest, his chances of survival drop by 10 percent. The ForeRunner, which is now marketed by Philips, was the first portable defibrillator that anyone can use. The $4,000 device prompts the operator on how to use the paddles, while an onboard computer electrocardiogram determines the correct voltage. Earlier this fall, Philips produced its one millionth device, which the company donated to a helicopter rescue team In Washington State.

Toyota Prius, 1997, 2003, 2009

The Prius has won three Best of What's New awards in the 15 years since Toyota debuted its hybrid-drive system in Japan in 1997. By the time the Prius made it to the U.S. market in the 2004 model year, it was clocking 55 mpg on average, and the 2010 model added at least 5 more miles on top of that. Regenerative braking systems, which transfer kinetic braking energy to the battery, are now common in hybrids. Yet the Prius remains king: To date, Toyota has sold more than 1 million Prius models worldwide, and the category-defining hybrid accounts for nearly half of all electric/gas cars on the road in the U.S.

Diamond Rio PMP300, 1998

We won't be surprised if you've never heard of the Diamond Rio PMP300, but you're surely familiar with the portable-music revolution that followed it. The Rio was the first successful portable audio device that allowed users to download MP3 files—or rip them from their CDs—and load them onto a pocketable player. The $200 player held an hour of music. The Rio was so successful that it caught the attention of the RIAA, who filed an injunction against the company. The injunction was denied, but three years later something else came along to push the Rio out of the limelight: the first iPod.

Osiris Therapeutics stem cell research, 1999

The ability to induce a stem cell, the cells from which everything in the human body grows, to grow into a new body part could change how we think about transplants entirely. Scientists at Osiris Therapeutics in 1999 had one of the first successful experiments, in which they induced bone-marrow cells to grow into specific types of connective tissue. The experiment proved that many cell lineages can be associated with a single cell type, not several.

TiVo, 1999

More than anything that came before it, TiVo (current generation shown) signaled a shift in the way people watch TV. So-called appointment television became a thing of the past; watching what you want, when you want—and skipping commercials—was about to become the new norm. Over the next few years, cable and satellite providers began using their own recording tuner boxes, eventually releasing models with two tuners, so that viewers could watch one thing while recording another. The shift was so marked, in fact, that Nielsen began measuring digital recordings in 2005; their research has found that "TiVo'd" or "DVR'd" program watching has increased more than four fold in the last six years.

IEEE 802.11g Wi-Fi, 2003

Before 2003, no single wireless transmission standard had either the range or the speed to handle our growing appetite for connectivity. 802.11g had a range or 150 feet and a max speed of 54 Mbps (a five-fold bump). Wireless routers could be fast and wide-reaching enough to cover the demands of an entire house, coffee shop, or small office from a single access point.

Microsoft Xbox Live, 2003

As common as Internet-connected set-top boxes are now, only nine years ago doing anything with the Internet on your TV was something of a foreign idea. Xbox Live, which owners could purchase as a $70 upgrade for their consoles, introduced the first Internet-connected gaming hub. At launch the service was a conduit for downloading additional game content, such as new levels and weapons, but it quickly expanded to include streaming and video-chat services, including Netflix and Skype, as platform "apps." Now not being able to access Netflix from a console, Blu-ray player, or set-top box is what feels foreign.

SpaceShipOne, 2003

The goal for X Prize contenders was not only to meet the requirement of the competition—namely to carry three people to 100 kilometers twice in a two week period—but also to demonstrate to the world that we didn't need the Space Shuttle to go into orbit. When we awarded the SpaceShipOne in 2003, it had yet to complete its mission, but it did on September 29 and October 4 the following year. The craft was carried to 50,000 feet by the jet-powered White Knight, then propelled as high as 112 kilometers by its hybrid rocket. It then coasted into an arc, re-entered the atmosphere, and landed like any other plane. The SpaceShipOne was grounded after claiming its prize, but Virgin Galactic now continues on its mission.

454 Life Sciences Genome Sequencer 20 System, 2005

Eight years ago, Dr. Jonathan Rothberg took the first step towards achieving an important goal: make human genome sequencing so affordable and fast that doctors could rely on it as a regular diagnostic tool. The Genome Sequencer 20 system, which needed only a month and $300,000 per person sequenced, was based around a fiber-optic chip that could hold hundreds of thousands of DNA fragments (the previous methodology could only accommodate 384 at a time). In 2007, Rothberg went on to found Ion Torrent, a company that this year released the Ion Proton system, which sequences an entire genome in a day for $1,000.

Google Maps, 2005

Standalone GPS devices are one of the most-profound—dare we say welcome—casualties of the smartphone revolution. Google Maps, more so than any other mapping software, is what made that possible. Rather than wasting time and bandwidth loading an entire map at once, the software loads it tile-by-tile; as you scroll, it sends a signal to the server to send down new tiles, which come with instructions on stitching them all together. Today, the 150 million Maps users plot about 12 billion miles of routes each year.

Apple iPhone and App Store, 2007 and 2008

It was hard to not be impressed by the iPhone when Apple first debuted it five years ago. A sleek, touchscreen phone that puts the internet in your pocket? Everyone was sold. Many devices had inched towards this moment (the Nokia 900 Communicator, for example, was well ahead of its time in 1997), but never had the user experience been quite so smooth. Something was missing, though; we still had to rely on ingenuitive hackers to code games and apps. Not for long: the very next year, Apple launched the App Store and changed everything all over again. The pairing set up the framework that all other mobile computing systems—Android Windows Phone—now follow. But the Cupertino company didn't stop there; iPods, iPads, and Mac desktops and laptops now all run on a hardware-plus-app-store model. People in the mobile ecosystem alone download an estimated 46 million apps every day.

Large Hadron Collider, 2008

The 14-year effort to complete the Large Hardon Collider was only half the battle. Once the thousands-strong team of physicists and engineers had stabilized the LHC's 1,200 35-ton magnets, the work of finding the Higgs boson, an integral particle for explaining how the universe can exist, could begin. This July two experiments produced what could very well be the illusive particle; both papers were published in September.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 2009

The 5D Mark II signaled a key moment in photography: the moment that any still photographer had the equipment necessary to become a high-def videographer. The 5D Mark II was the first D-SLR to shoot high-def video—others from Nikon and other competitors followed quickly after, of course. Canon engineers developed a D-SLR processor powerful enough to encode 30 frames of high-def video from the camera's 21-megapixel sensor into video every second. And, because the 5D works with dozens of pre-existing D-SLR lenses, many already had the wares necessary for full-blown movie shoots. Only three years later, cinematographers have used the 5D in countless TV shows, commercials, and films, including scenes from The Avengers, the Oscar-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again, and the stop-motion film Paranorman. Not bad for a still camera.

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa - 828 meters

The Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, UAE, was completed in 2010. It is 2,716 feet (828 meters) tall, making it the tallest building in the world until the Kingdom Tower bumps it to second place.

Mars Curiosity and Sky Crane, 2011 and 2012

It may have seemed presumptuous to award a Mars rover that had yet to successfully land on the Martian surface, but the Curiosity was a wager well worth taking. The rover was five times the weight of prior rovers, which meant it could carry a generator good for 700 earth days and enough instruments to collect samples, vaporize rocks, and carry onboard samples for further testing. But, mind you, Curiosity couldn't pull off any of that until it landed safely, a task carried out by the sky crane. Because of Curiosity's weight, it couldn't land on airbags as prior rovers had, so engineers started from scratch and came back with a thruster-controlled platform that would safely lower the rover to the surface. And on August 6 it did just that.

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