At SchoolSphero Staff
An industrial robot packs boxes in a warehouse.

We’ve all heard of famous inventors like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin — historic icons who have made incredible contributions to the advancement of humanity. However, there are many equally significant inventors of today’s times that most people have never heard of, and they have also impacted our daily lives with their creations.

Especially when it comes to the modern technology that we use every day, there are many contemporary inventors whose names are largely unknown.

At Sphero, we believe these inventors also deserve recognition, not just for their innovations, but also because their stories can help inspire the next generation of inventors and visionaries. 

We consulted our community of educators, Sphero Heroes, to help tell the stories of these modern innovators and why they’re worth learning about — here’s what they had to say.

5 Inventions and Their Creators

These inventors have each had a major impact on our lives through their technological advancements, and they all have a strong link to STEM. Let’s dive deeper into how each invention came to be and who we have to thank for its creation.

1. Who invented the industrial robot?

George C. Devol

George C. Devol, a self-taught American inventor inspired by science fiction, created the world’s first programmable robot. His invention, named Unimate #001, was designed to safely retrieve and stack hot metal pieces in industrial assembly, removing the risk of injury to human workers. This industrial robot was installed at a General Motors plant in Trenton, New Jersey in 1961 to make operations safer and more efficient.

Brandon Hazzard, Sphero Hero and Educational Technology Integrationist at the First Academy in Florida, explains, “Devol’s goal was to create safer working conditions for workers by having robots do the jobs that were thought of as the most hazardous. His idea was that with the correct programming and the need, a robot can be created and used for just about anything.”

Devol’s robot paved the way for today’s advanced industrial robots, which have made life much safer for the millions of people working in manufacturing. But, perhaps even more significantly, Devol’s robot laid the foundations for entire fields of STEM. 

As Hazzard says, “STEM industries like Sphero are a direct result of Devol's Unimate robot.”

2. Who invented the tablet computer?

Alan Kay

Today, laptops are commonplace, and they have even become a crucial part of the way we work, play, and communicate daily. But did you know that modern laptops are descendants of an invention called the Dynabook?

A laptop computer sitting on a desk.

Released in 1972, the Dynabook was the brainchild of Alan Kay, a computer science Ph.D. from the University of Utah. He envisioned and brought to life a computer for childhood education that would be about the size of a book, and thus the foundation for modern laptops and tablets was laid.

Kay’s Dynabook featured a stylus, weighed about two pounds, and even had a graphical user interface. This invention was far ahead of its time and set the blueprint for future tablet computer designs.

Liz Spradlin, Sphero Hero and Media Specialist at Heard County High School in Georgia, says of Kay, “Since he created the first tablet computer, he opened the door to possibilities for the advancement of technology.”

Kay also contributed to the world of STEM education by advocating for technology use to enrich childhood learning. As Spradlin explains, “Kay was also a prime component in aiding the advancement of media education for children. STEM education and STEM-related industries would not be as advanced as they are today if it were not for Mr. Kay.”

Many budding inventors could learn from Alan Kay’s imaginative mindset, perfectly embodied in a quote of his: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

3. Who invented the World Wide Web?

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

There are many contenders for the most significant invention of the past century, but most people would agree that the creation of the World Wide Web (or “www.” as you may know it) is surely near the top of the list.

A representation of the world wide web, invented by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the information system that identifies destinations by Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) called the World Wide Web when he was working as a software engineer in Switzerland. Originally, his idea was to write a program that would help access and manage information on the internet to improve communication between scientists around the world.

In 1989, Sir Berners-Lee presented this idea to his boss at CERN, titled “Information Management: A Proposal”. His boss famously jotted down at the top of this proposal, “vague, but exciting…” The project turned out to be a huge success, and this information management technology began to quickly grow into the web that we know today. 

Todd Doerpinghaus, Sphero Hero and Learning Resource Teacher at John Muir Literacy Academy in Illinois, says, “The invention of the World Wide Web by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee made possible a way for people to communicate and share information across the world. This opened up a type of universal language that allows everyone, especially those involved in STEM fields, to participate with others in brainstorming, problem-solving, and solution sharing. The World Wide Web removed distance as a barrier to participation.”

4. Who invented the SMARTboard?

Nancy Knowlton & David Martin

No modern classroom is complete without a SMARTboard, but this educational invention is a relatively new addition to our learning environments. 

A woman writes on a Smartboard in front of a class of students.

The first SMARTboard was released in 1991 after Nancy Knowlton and David Martin invented the board through their company, SMART Technologies. Their goal was to make the classroom learning experience more interactive, fun, and dynamic, giving teachers more flexibility and opening the door to new teaching methods and materials.

The SMARTboard was the first interactive whiteboard system with touch controls, having a huge impact on the way today’s teaching and learning take place. Chance Weir, Sphero Hero and Technology Teacher at Camp Verde Middle School in Arizona, says, “Nancy Knowlton and David Martin's invention helped change how classroom engagement is handled.”

5. Who invented the LeapPad?

Jim Marggraff

The LeapPad launched in 1999 as a tablet computer for children, using technology to enrich early education and overcome barriers. For example, one feature allowed users to drag the stylus over any word on the screen to hear it read aloud. This device quickly rose to be the top-selling toy in the U.S. for two years straight.

A LeapFrog LeapPad Ultimate tablet for kids.

Image credit: LeapFrog/Amazon

The LeapPad, which has now expanded to be LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., was invented by Jim Marggraff, an engineer and entrepreneur who at the time had already helped found two technology companies. The LeapPad in particular was a significant invention in that it paved the way for learning overall to become more accessible and engaging.

Garrett Gross, Sphero Hero and Computer Literacy Teacher & Technology Coordinator at St. Mary’s School in Illinois, says, “The LeapPad technology helped teach children and adults to read, write, speak, solve math problems, and practice other essential foundational skills effectively, all while having fun throughout the entire process.”

Gross further explains the lasting impact of the LeapPad on today’s education, stating, “We actually own multiple LeapFrog products, as I believe in their mission to effectively enable and encourage users to learn through the aid of wonderful technology-based devices that focus on quality and highly engaging content.”

Start Creating Inventions of Your Own with Sphero

The impact that these five inventions and their inventors have had on daily life and the way we learn, teach, and experience STEM is astronomical. Recognizing and revering contemporary creators at the same level as their historical counterparts will help show children what is possible in the modern world of inventions, a world that is rapidly evolving and ready for the next generation to take on. 

Ready to start inspiring your young learners to create and innovate? Sphero’s range of STEM kits and programmable robots helps make hands-on STEM experiences accessible to you and your students.

At school