10 Patents That Changed the World

The drone. The iPhone. Bluetooth. GPS. Before they changed the world, these technologies were schematics on paper. Here is where the future began.

Forget the image of the lonely inventor tinkering away in a workshop. Today, it’s more common that numerous technologies developed by a variety of inventors suddenly come together to form a cohesive whole, such as the iPhone or the self-driving car. Other inventions, such as the quadcopter drone and 3D printer, were designed decades before the surrounding technology suddenly transformed the core device into a worldwide phenomenon.

Innovation may be different today, but it is alive and well. Here are 15 patents that shaped the modern world.

1. Theranos: Medical device for analyte monitoring and drug delivery

Few people beyond the medical research industry and Silicon Valley venture capital circles had heard of Elizabeth Holmes before she vaulted into the media spotlight in 2014 as the youngest self-made female billionaire on the Forbes 400 list. This application filed in August 2005 was her first. Based on a vision of rapid medical diagnosis and treatment, the method is a wearable patch to help administer drugs, monitor patients’ variables in the blood, while adjusting the dosage as needed. Many other patent applications – Holmes is listed as a co-inventor on over 100 – have followed, including one in 2007, Real-time detection of influenza virus. Considering that the World Health Organization estimates an annual influenza death toll worldwide of between 250,000 to 500,000, that could be a lucrative patent. By 2014, Theranos had raised over $400 million and was valued in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

2. Magnetic Levitation (Maglev)

Patent Name: “Electromagnetic inductive suspension and stabilization system for a ground vehicle”

The story of the maglev train begins with Eric Laithwaite and his work on full-size linear induction motors. The inventor realized a linear motor, which does not require contact with a railroad track, could be used to develop a transportation system based on magnetic fields. Laithwaite tested linear induction motors that could use magnets to achieve both lift and forward thrust.

Laithwaite’s work was widely studied, and in 1967, James Powell and Gordon Danby of the Brookhaven National Laboratory received the first patent for a maglev train. Their design was intended to use superconducting electromagnets to generate “a suspension force, for floating the train above the ground,” and it was to use a “propellor, jet, [or] rocket” to achieve thrust.

When Laithwaite’s work on linear induction motors was married to Powell and Danby’s design for a floating train, the first commercial maglev trains were born. A maglev shuttle was opened in the U.K. in 1995, and the Germans built and tested a number of prototypes resulting in the Transrapid. A German-developed Transrapid in Shanghai is the fastest commercial train in service with a top operating speed of 270 mph, while an L0 series maglev train prototype in Japan set the speed record for a train at 375 mph. In the future, hyperloop systems could use similar technology to float and accelerate passenger pods in a vacuum-sealed tube, potentially hitting speeds as high as 750 mph.

3. FireEye: System and method of detecting computer worms

Former Sun Microsystems engineer Ashar Aziz founded security startup FireEye in 2004. His vision was first detailed in this March 2005 patent. His method of identifying and responding to a specific network security risk category evolved into the company’s main product line, the FireEye Malware Protection System. A massively successful IPO on NASDAQ followed in 2013.

4. Zynga: Asynchronous challenge gaming

Zynga VP Andrew Busey and software engineer Christian Primozich filed this patent in November 2008 to protect Zynga’s nascent social gaming plans. The method described how individual characters and character teams could challenge others based on characteristics such as abilities, powers, defenses and performance levels. While Zynga’s vertiginous growth has levelled off, the brand remains synonymous with social and casual gaming on mobile and desktop

5. Apple: Microcomputer for use with video display

Decades before Apple expanded into mobile communication, music distribution and timepieces, it was synonymous with digital design. Steve Jobs’ less well-known co-founder Steve Wozniak invented a method for displaying color and high-resolution graphics using a standard cathode ray tube, which this April 1977 filing described.

6. Google: Method for node ranking in a linked database

This is Google’s famous PageRank patent. Larry Page’s invention valued a webpage based on how many other pages linked to it. Filed in January 1998, the approach provided a significant improvement in the quality of search results, a key factor in Google’s rise as the dominant search engine. Interestingly, the original assignee was Stanford University, which received 1.8 million shares of Google stock in exchange for a long-term license. When your company name becomes a verb, you know the IP behind the activity is pretty valuable and worth protecting.

7. GoPro: Harness system for attaching the camera to the user

GoPro founder and CEO Nicholas Woodman’s vision has always centered on enabling people to record the fun part of life. His first patent, filed in February of 2004, detailed a harness to attach a camera safely to your body so it wouldn’t dislodge while surfing, rock climbing, dancing, kiteboarding or doing anything else. GoPro’s growth soared starting in 2009 upon the release of its own line of affordable video cameras, and the brand has become synonymous with recording life’s dynamic moments.

8.SolarCity: Methods for financing renewable energy systems

The home solar industry had been in existence of decades when VP of Strategy David Arfin unveiled an innovation (March 2008 patent filing) that was recognized in 2009 by Scientific America as one of twenty world-changing ideas to build a cleaner, healthier and smarter world. The SolarLease® is a business method using tax-deductible home loans to finance solar installations. Rampant growth using the lease process detailed in the patent made SolarCity one of the hottest brands in the resurgent renewable sector in the USA.

9. Facebook: Dynamically generating a privacy summary

Interestingly, this isn’t the first patent granted to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, though it was the first that he filed. Six years passed before he and co-inventor Chris Kelly, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, received formal approval of their invention in July 2012. It addresses privacy settings, and systems and methods to dynamically generate a privacy summary based on an individual’s privacy setting selections.

10. Square: Systems and methods for decoding card swipe signals

Square certainly had its IP management strategy devised early on; it filed its first patent and a dozen others on the same day. This patent, which cited founding engineer Sam Wen as an inventor, was filed in October 2010. It details exactly what anyone who has visited arts and craft festival in recent years knows well – swiping a credit card on a mobile phone is an incredibly easy way to buy and sell anything. It’s also a great way to create a multi-billion-dollar valuation