Wanted – Ten Billion Dollar Inventions (Sep, 1931)

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Wanted – Ten Billion Dollar Inventions


What are the inventions of tomorrow which will be worth billions of dollars to industry? Mr. Yates, member of the Institute of Radio Engineers and well-known writer on scientific subjects, here describes ten billion-dollar ideas. It will be interesting to make your own list and compare it with that of Mr. Yates.

THERE is at hand a new day of big rewards for inventors; rewards larger than dared to be dreamed of years ago. America is particularly anxious to stimulate its genius by the payment of huge sums of money to those who can solve the industrial problems that many of our large manufacturers are now facing. It has been said that competition is life of trade; it is more than that, it is the life of invention too. It has caused many of our great industries to establish their own laboratories in an attempt to better their products and widen their markets.

America needs more inventions today than it ever needed before and thousands of professional inventors have been hired to find these new things; these market builders. However, this, contrary to current opinion, does not mean that the independent inventor is no longer a factor or that his efforts are no longer needed. The Records of the patent office prove quite the opposite. .Manufacturers want ideas and they don’t care where they come from. The fact that many of them have established their own laboratories just goes to show how tightly pressed they have been; how keenly they feel the onslaught of competition.

A short time ago the writer sat in the lounge room of a club. Two chemists, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a business man1 were present. The conversation drifted to invention and research and the business man finally asked those present to name what they thought were the outstanding problems “of the day; to name what he was pleased to call “ten one-billion dollar ideas”. At first there was some dissension but as the conversation wore on, agreement was at last reached and ten problems really in the billion-dollar class were laid down. It was not thought that inventors would receive this amount for their ideas. Rather, it was merely believed that the successful solution of the problems would be worth a billion dollars each to the industry to which they were related.

The first problem discussed had to do with a new source of power. Atomic energy was ruled out as being visionary and at present utterly beyond control, even if it could be produced. Also a substitute for gasoline was ruled out. Such substitutes are known but they have not as yet destroyed our gasoline markets nor do they jeopardize the millions that our gasoline manufacturers have invested in their refineries. It was decided, however, that electricity offers the most convenient, the most reliable and the most flexible means of power. What is needed is a cheap and effective means of storing large quantities of electricity in small light weight containers. Let us assume that a storage battery of new type is invented that will deliver a power of 25 horses for a period of 48 hours. What would this mean to transportation? What would this mean eventually to our gasoline market? In place of taking on ten gallons of gasoline at the gas station, we would simply take on a new container of electricity. During the night, when the service load on the public utility mains was relieved, current could be used to recharge such containers. Even such great water falls as Niagara might be “turned off” during the night and the power generated (some 7,000,000 horsepower) be used in this manner. The electric automobile would be the ideal. Silent, fast and with a flexibility that can never be hoped to be reached in the gas car. Not only that, but it would be free of gas and it would require only an insignificant percentage of the lubrication needed for the gas machine. Surely that would be a billion dollar idea, and conservatively rated at that.

The discussion of this idea suggested the second billion dollar invention; the direct conversion of the heat from coal and other fuels into electric energy. At the present time, we burn coal, produce steam and permit the steam to expand in either a turbine or a steam en- gine. This is a very wasteful process and one that costs us many billions of dollars annually. It has been known for many years that when two dissimilar metals are brought together and heated at the points of their conjuncture, a small electric current is produced. On this principle a thermo-electric battery has been produced, but what we need is a thermo-electric generator of large size where the heat produced by the burning coal will be directly converted into electricity. By this process, at least fifty per cent more energy could be derived from the same amount of coal. And this aside from the advantage of junking almost half of the equipment now needed to produce power. To say that this is a billion-dollar idea is surely leaning toward conservatism.

A flying machine that will be able to operate vertically and horizontally is a much needed idea. True, we have the helicopter, but in its present form it by no means offers a solution to the problem. It is really a makeshift and but a passing fancy of designers. It can never endure. It is simply an airplane with two propellers.

When problems of invention and research are discussed, there always appears that old but none the less interesting sub- ject of light without heat. It was brought out for discussion on this particular occasion and it was decided to include it. Not only that but it was decided that we are getting dangerously close to its solution. The last year has seen the development of gas-filled lamps that offer a great deal of promise in supplying perfectly white light at very low cost. This new filamentless bulb has come as a result of researches into the conduction of electricity through gases. It is a billion-dollar idea but it has by no means been perfectly commercialized and it still awaits those final touches by some genius who is bound to receive a handsome reward for his efforts. Indeed, there is an odd race going on in this field of cold light research. Another and highly revolutionary idea is that of painting the walls of a room with a luminous paint which is first “charged” with light and which continues to glow for hours after the charge has been received.

And then we might consider the elimination of static in radio as a problem of the first order. This is especially so since the advent of television, for it is obvious that static is going to interfere more with television than it has with voice radio. Imperfections are more discernible to the sight than to the hearing. It is no secret that a number of our very large electrical manufacturers are now ready and willing to pay one million dollars in cold cash to the man who can solve this ugly problem. Its solution will mean many billion of dollars to the radio industry in the years immediately ahead of it.

The transmutation of the elements was concerned along with atomic energy and while this would no doubt be an invention worth countless billions, it was thought to be far too fanciful to be included in the general list.

A cheaper and more simple system or process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was considered and accepted to the list on the pleas of the chemists present. What is needed is a simple nitrogen fixer that a farmer can purchase and operate himself with power received from the electric light company. Such a device would do a great deal to make farm land more valuable and help farmers out of their present difficulties. Naturally the apparatus needed should not cost much and it should be capable of producing at least one hundred pounds of fertilizer a day. Furthermore, the fertilizer should cost but a fraction of a cent a pound if the invention is going to be of maximum usefulness.

There are in various parts of the world, particularly South America, countless billions of tons of low grade coal; that is, coal with a very high degree of ash. What is needed is a cheap and effective way of removing this ash so this coal may be used near the spots where it is found. Naturally, this invention would not benefit the United States, but it would offer very great industrial stimulation to the South American countries and in this way it would affect the United States.

Television must go on the list. It still awaits that crowning discovery that will bring it out of the laboratory and place it at the disposal of the workaday world. Much remains to be done and the inventor who can master the situation will eventually find himself many times a millionaire. To say that once developed television will develop into a billion dollar industry is by no means a fanciful prediction.

A rather interesting debate fixed the position of the ninth invention. Both of the chemists and the electrical engineer kept the floor and after listening to their arguments, the rest agreed that the vast importance of their invention entitled it to be placed among the great ten. It was that of controlling rain; something that man has desired for many centuries. Artificial precipitation has been caused to a minor extent by permitting charged sand to fall from an airplane but the system offered no promise. What is needed is a system reliable enough to be turned over to the city street cleaning department so that rain may be turned on at three o’clock in the morning and off again at four. And if we can control rain there is no reason to suppose that we cannot control snow, inasmuch as rain is only frozen snow. To be able to control snow storms and blizzards, to say nothing of cloudbursts, would be of enormous value when we stop to think of the many millions of dollars damage every year. Incidentally, it was agreed upon that the system needed to effect this control would-be electrical—really a means of controlling the charges in the atmosphere. The system should not involve the use of super-voltages owing to the great difficulty of controlling such voltages.

And what is the tenth great idea? Perpetual motion? No, the idea of perpetual motion was not even considered, although the one non-technical member of the group, the business man, did mention the subject. Perpetual motion is never mentioned as a possibility by men who have won their technical spurs, so to speak. They know that it is utterly impossible. Anything that would nullify the law of the conservation of energy is impossible. Although many men have gone mad trying to batter this immutable law down it still stands just as solidly as ever, and perpetual motion is no nearer solution than it was hundreds of years ago when the idea was first conceived.

Rapid transportation through the medium of electro-magnetic levitation was finally awarded the tenth place. It was argued, and rightly so, that civilization is becoming too centralized, too crowded into large cities. Human health is being sacrificed at too great a pace. Neurosis is becoming a too common ailment. All of this centralization is brought about by the necessity of business and social intercourse. Rapid transportation at low cost would solve that. The New York business man could commute from the Adirondacks if he could travel 400 miles per hour. The airplane is as yet neither fast enough or safe enough for him to use. A car levitated electro-magnetically would function as a sort of airplane under perfect control and near the earth. It would overcome to a large extent that great bugaboo of travel, friction. Furthermore, it is possible that such a car could be made to reach prodigious speeds with safety.

  1. carlm says: June 17, 20104:05 am

    Gee, Philo T. Farnsworth was the real inventor of what would be considered modern (scanned CRT)television theory. He died neither rich nor very famous. He should have gone for the electromagnetically levitated train. (Maglev)

  2. carlm says: June 17, 20104:22 am

    Also the idea of “Static Free” radio was devised by Major Edwin Armstrong. It was called Frequency Modulation or FM radio. He was originally “helped” by General Sarnoff of RCA fame. Sarnoff later did his best to kill the whole concept to protect RCA’s AM radio interests. RCA also fought Philo Farnsworth over the patent rights for TV as well. Armstrong wound up jumping to his death. Ah, the future holds so much promise the the men with big ideas!

  3. jayessell says: June 17, 20105:04 am

    carlm: As shown in this video:


  4. John Savard says: June 17, 20103:25 pm

    Direct conversion of heat into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but one could just take that “invention” as what we understand as solar power. Which is something we’re still looking for; while we have solar cells, efficiency for capital cost is a problem.

    Storing electrical power in cars as compactly as gasoline stores energy is another current problem that is still being worked on.

    So while we have FM radio, television, and maglev trains, some of the inventions in the list are still being sought.

  5. John Savard says: June 17, 20103:27 pm

    Ah, and the LED and the fluorescent light bulb correspond to another of the billion-dollar inventions on the list that we now have.

  6. Andrew L. Ayers says: June 17, 20104:22 pm

    “Direct conversion of heat into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics”

    Is a thermocouple in some manner an “indirect” method of converting heat into electricity that I am unaware of…?

  7. Jari says: June 17, 20104:28 pm

    John: About that heat into electricity, the article clearly talks about thermoelectric couple, not solar cells. And how, exactly, does it violates second law? But then again, what is light, but a form of heat…

    carlm: FM is NOT free of static. Just drive a car away from a station and you start hearing more and more of it. There’s just less, than in AM.

    Right now I could do with weather control, though.

    That picture about the guy putting a cylinder in a car reminds of me about that scene in the “Fifth Element”, where those two guys fueled that starship to Fhloston Paradice.

  8. Jari says: June 17, 20104:30 pm

    Darn, Andrew beat me into that 🙂

  9. jayessell says: June 17, 20104:58 pm

    About the heat into electricity…

    The thermocouple works by producing electricity from a temperature gradient.
    Part has to be cold and part has to be hot.

    A refrigerator that produces electricity by destroying heat is obviously impossible.

    Some Russian radios worked by a kerosene lamp and thermocouples.
    It worked best in the cold.

  10. JMyint says: June 18, 20106:58 am

    The Radioisotope Thermoelectic Generators (RTGs) that power our deep space probes use the heat released by radioactive decay to generate electricity. What the article calls a helicopter sounds more like an autogyro, Igor Sikorsky did make a good deal of money with his helicopter design and no one today would think of them as a passing fad.

  11. Andrew L. Ayers says: June 20, 20101:03 pm


    Note: I am posting these links so that others may have an understanding of what is being discussed…

    Something I do find strange about this article is that they talked about heat conversion of the the sun’s energy using thermocouples (more likely thermopiles), when selenium solar cells had already been in existence for quite some time (though I don’t know if they were more or less efficient than a comparable thermopile). Also, wouldn’t a closed loop steam turbine system of the day, coupled with parabolic reflector solar concentrators, have been more efficient than either (at least on a larger scale)? There’s a lot of debate over efficiency vs. maintenance vs. cost when it comes to solar concentrators for electrical generation vs large-scale solar panel installations. I wonder if this kind of thing was debated even then…

  12. Michael says: June 21, 20102:12 pm

    Direct conversion of heat into electricity violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics…
    I think many people forget, that some things we do today used to break “Laws of science” until some one successfully did something that violated one, thus disproving the “Law”.
    More importantly, even if the current theory holds, in challenging it, people may run into wonderfull solutions to problems. So what if we never can convert heat to electricity, what if we find a way to use heat as a catalyst at 99% efficiently? or find a direct conversion to something else, than can in turn be converted to kinetic energy. Is hasn’t been that long since people believed you could not convert mass to energy (fission)..

  13. Firebrand38 says: June 21, 20103:08 pm

    Michael: You aren’t paying attention, thermocouples convert heat into electricity.
    I’m curious though about your remark “some things we do today used to break “Laws of science” until some one successfully did something that violated one, thus disproving the “Law”. Any examples spring to mind?
    What specific “Laws of Science” did we used to “break” as you put it?

    To all the naysayers, I’m sorry but you’re starting to sound like Creationists saying that the Second Law support their argument for a young Earth without any idea what it says.

    You’re probably thinking of Lord Kelvin’s statement: It is impossible to convert heat completely into work in a cyclic process.

    That is, it is impossible to extract energy by heat from a high-temperature energy source and then convert all of the energy into work. At least some of the energy must be passed on to heat a low-temperature energy sink. Thus, a heat engine with 100% efficiency is thermodynamically impossible. This also means that it is impossible to build solar panels that generate electricity solely from the infrared band of the electromagnetic spectrum without consideration of the temperature on the other side of the panel (as is the case with conventional solar panels that operate in the visible spectrum).

    No one is saying that thermocouples are 100% efficient so there is no “violation” of the Second Law. But you knew that.

  14. JMyint says: June 21, 20106:29 pm

    I don’t think Micheal knows the Laws of Thermodynamics or what a physical law is. For the non-scientific the laws of thermodynamics are these:

    1. You can’t win you can only break even.
    2. You can only break even at absolute zero.
    3. You can’t reach absolute zero.

    Basically it is saying that you can convert one form of energy to another but you will always lose a portion of the energy as heat. The only possible time you can convert one form of energy without heat loss is at 0 degrees Kelvin. Since all atomic motion stops at 0 degrees Kelvin you can’t get anything that cold.

    Physical laws like the laws of thermodynamics describe how something works. The law of gravity is gravity is directly proportional to mass, and inversly proportional to the square of the distance from the mass. A scientific theory describes why it works. Eistein theorised that gravity works by curving space/time around the object. Ohm’s law says that voltage is equal to current times resistance. The electron theory states that current is the result of extra electrons being added to the outer shell of the atoms and those electrons jumping to the more positive atoms around them. The hole theory states that electrons are being pulled from the outer shell of the atoms and those atoms are pulling electrons from the more negative atoms around them. Two mutually exclusive theories and both work, both adequately explain the various laws of electricity. The electron theory is easier to work with on the macro scale of wires and switches, the hole theory is easier to work with on the micro scale of transistors and integrated circuits.

  15. Firebrand38 says: June 21, 20107:41 pm

    JMyint: Lately it’s been like the Monty Python sketch with the Exploding Penguin…”Burma!” “Why did you say Burma?” “I panicked!”

    Same thing, except substitute the Second Law of Thermodynamics for “Burma!”

  16. Arglebarglefarglegleep says: August 6, 20103:59 pm

    “A flying machine that will be able to operate vertically and horizontally is a much needed idea. True, we have the helicopter, but in its present form it by no means offers a solution to the problem. It is really a makeshift and but a passing fancy of designers. It can never endure. It is simply an airplane with two propellers.” I think the writer was talking about autogyros http://en.wikipedia.org… which at the time looked a lot like a plane with stubby wings and two ‘propellers’.

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