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A&E Biography Honors the 15 Greatest Inventors of the 20th Century

The Arts & Entertainment Television Networks premiered a Special one-hour program The Top 15 Inventors of the 20th Century on Tuesday, June 4, 2002. The program was one of a number of A&E Biography 15th Anniversary Specials to recognize the various subject categories covered over the life of the series.

The “Top 15” were selected and ranked through a poll of 250 journalists, inventors and academics as the “most influential inventors of the last 100 years” who “brought us from the industrial age to the information age.” While most of those chosen were known for just a single innovation, the selections were also based on the contributions of an entire career. (For dramatic effect, the inventors were presented in reverse order ranking on the program.) The Top 15 and their specific contributions (in a necessarily simple and brief manner) were:

  1. Thomas Edison for various inventions.
  2. Orville and Wilbur Wright for the airplane.
  3. William Shockley (with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain) for the transistor.
  4. Philo Farnsworth for television.
  5. Jonas Salk for the Polio vaccine.
  6. Leo Baekeland for plastics.
  7. Nikola Tesla for alternating current.
  8. Alan Turing for the computer.
  9. Gregory Pincus for the birth control pill.
  10. Leo Szilard for the atom bomb.
  11. Gordon Gould for the laser.
  12. Henry Ford for the assembly line.
  13. Guglielmo Marconi for the radio.
  14. Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer for genetic engineering.
  15. Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web.

The pace of the program was hectic. After deducting for an opening, five commercial breaks, intermediate list reviews and recaps, a closing and end credits only about 40 minutes remained for brief sketches of each of the 15 honorees. Those sketches, which ran from about two minutes to just over three minutes each, had to cover the impact of the inventors contribution on society, the relation of the inventor’s technology to similar or competing technologies, the source or method of inspiration, the breadth of the inventors genius and personality and other items needed for clarification.

The program host, correspondent Harry Smith, guided the sketches each of which included on-camera interviews with personalities commenting on aspects of the inventor’s work or life. Those commenting ranged from people with specific technical credentials such as John Rennie, Editor in Chief of Scientific American and George Campbell, President of Cooper Union, to industry leaders like Steve Case, Chairman of AOL Time Warner, to popular personalities like radio host, Don Imus and musician, Sean Combs. Personal insights were provided by some of the inventors themselves (Tim Berners-Lee, Stanley Cohen, Herbert Boyer and Gordon Gould) or close relatives of the inventors (Pem Farnsworth, widow of Philo Farnsworth and William Terbo, grandnephew of Nikola Tesla).

No list or ranking can satisfy everyone. If the list were to exclude inventions patented before the 20th Century, Thomas Edison might not have appeared at all. If the inventions were judged specifically on their impact on the 20th Century, it would be impossible to ignore Alexander Graham Bell. If inventors were measured by (patented) inventions, Henry Ford would have to be excluded and Tim Berners-Lee would not make the cut. If the ranking were based on life’s work, Nikola Tesla would rank at or near the top – if based only on 20th Century patents, Tesla’s ranking at number seven is about right.

Edison’s position as the American Icon for technology remains intact. The program maintains this image by including “Some people say he single-handedly invented the 20th Century” and “ He was not the best inventor – or even the smartest – he was tenacious.” For the sheer volume of patents (1,032) he is unchallenged. The support for top ranking was (in order mentioned): the phonograph, reworking the ordinary light bulb to the incandescent bulb, the movie camera, film sound synchronization, the stock ticker, the mimeograph, telephone improvements, the first U.S. power plant and Portland Cement. While the impact of the light bulb, phonograph and movie camera on the 20th Century is undeniable, only together do they make a foundation for high ranking.

The program accords Nikola Tesla praise that is often overlooked. Host Harry Smith opens the Tesla sketch with “The man who made possible most of our modern uses of electricity – Thomas Edison? No! It’s Nikola Tesla!” Edison was called “a stubborn and unyielding taskmaster” and the “War of the Currents” went to Tesla. Scientific American Editor in Chief, John Rennie calls Tesla “One of the most wildly inventive minds that the world has ever seen.” “He was hugely influential – to say the least – in creating Alternating Current and thereby setting a standard for all of the electrical power grid that we know today.” The AC victory opened the door to Tesla’s advances (as mentioned in the sketch) in radio, remote control and other inventions ranging from radar to neon lights.

The Tesla Memorial Society supported the producers of The Top 15 Inventors of the 20th Century. This included providing photographs and documents to assist in creating the Tesla program sketch and a studio on-camera interview with Society Executive Secretary, William Terbo. The photos were widely used by the producers and A&E in the program network promotional clips as well as in the actual production opening and Tesla sketch segment. This gave the image of Nikola Tesla much more airtime and meets the Society objective of personalizing Tesla for the general public. The program included end credits for the Society, the Nikola Tesla Museum (Belgrade) and William Terbo.