When thinking about the invention of many contraptions and modern technology in use today, it is sometimes a habit to look straight to Europe or the US as the innovators. What can often be overlooked are the amazing contributions from a whole host of different countries and their thinkers and inventors.
This article will enlighten you on 5 amazing inventions created by people from the Spanish-speaking world that have changed society for the better.
Many of you might own an Amazon Kindle or another kind of e-reader on which you can access all of the latest best-sellers. What you might not know is that the first mechanised (now electronic) book dates back to 1949, and its creator was Ángela Ruiz Robles of Galicia, Spain.
Ruiz Robles (1895- 1975) is known to be the inventor of the mechanical encyclopedia, retrospectively renowned as the precursor to the electronic book. Ruiz Robles was a school teacher, writer, and inventor in Spain who wanted to find an easier way for her students to read more without having to transport a heavy pile of books. It was also a way of expanding their knowledge beyond the limits of conventional books.
This aspiration facilitated the invention of her ‘Mechanical Encyclopedia’ as she called it, which operated on compressed air. Her mechanical encyclopedia was described as a “mechanical, electric and air-pressure driven method for reading books”, the contraption included audio, a magnifying glass, a light and several different subject reels that could be swapped out on rotation, all housed in a hard metal case.
Her work gained posthumous recognition. However, in her lifetime she never received the necessary funding to develop her product en masse. Her prototype is exhibited in the National Museum of Science and Technology in La Coruña, Spain. In 2018, Ruiz Robles was commemorated by a street named after her in Madrid as part of a project with the aim of recognising amazing contributors to society who were overlooked or marginalised – as a woman in Francoist Spain, Ruiz Robles was both of those things.
Fun fact: Ángela Ruiz Robles’ 121st Birthday was marked by a Google Doodle on March 28 2016.
Oral Contraceptive Pills
Mexican chemist Luis Miramontes (1925- 2004) is best known for the invention and synthesis of norethisterone, a semi-synthetic steroid. Norethisterone was to be the progestin used in one of the first three oral contraceptive pills (combined pills containing progesterone and estrogen used for birth control).
Miramontes worked alongside Carl Djerassi and Jorge Rosenkrantz for the Mexican chemical company Syntex who requested a patent for their invention in 1951. Syntex submitted their compound to a laboratory in Wisconsin for biological evaluation where it was found to be the “most active, orally-effective progestational hormone of its time”.
The most outstanding aspect of this invention story is that Miramontes was a student at the time, working under the direction of Djerassi and Rosenkranz. Although he was completing his Bachelors’ thesis while working at Syntex, it was Miramontes himself who completed the last step in the first synthesis of the compound known as norethisterone. It was this key compound which ended up being part of the first effective oral contraceptive to be synthesized.
Fun fact: Luis Miramontes was just 26 years old when he completed the synthesis of norethisterone.
The Colour TV
We (partially) owe our technicolour television experiences to México’s Guillermo González Camarena (1918-1965), an electrical engineer who introduced the field-sequential tricolour disk system in the late 1930s.
González Camarena’s “Chromoscopic Adapter for Television Equipment” was an early colour television transmission system designed to be easy to adapt to existing black-and-white television equipment. His was the first colour TV patented in the US and Mexico, a patent he had requested in México in 1940 and then in the US in 1941. González Camarena produced this colour television for México and also exported it to the Columbia College of Chicago for testing, who dubbed it as the best system in the world.
González Camarena also invented the “simplified Mexican colour TV system” as a more simplified and cheaper alternative to the NTSC (National Television System Committee) system. A modified version of this system was adopted by NASA during the Voyager 1 mission in 1979 in order to photograph Jupiter, as its simplicity was better suited for their usage than the NTSC system for a long-distance mission.
Fun fact: Cuba became the second country in the world to introduce colour TV broadcasting. However, the colour transmissions ceased when broadcasting stations were seized at the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Julio Palmaz (1945- ) is an Argentine doctor of vascular radiology and the inventor of the stent, which is used in modern medicine worldwide and was patented in 1985. His early stent research and prototypes are on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. His invention was recognised as one of the “Ten patents that changed the world” in the 20th century.
The conception of the balloon-expandable stent, for which he is most well-known, was inspired by a lecture by Gruentzig in New Orleans in 1978. A year prior to his lecture, Gruentzig performed the first-ever successful percutaneous coronary angioplasty, which involved inserting a catheter attached to a small balloon into the afflicted artery. However, it was found that after removing the device, arterial clogging reoccurred in patients. Albeit, this procedure was a massive step in the right direction and paved the way for Palmaz to develop the evolved version of the stent which is used today.
Palmaz’s idea was to build more of a scaffold to insert into the vessel in question, leaving it in place to prevent any occlusion of the vessel. The stent evolved to be manufactured out of a stainless steel mesh that could be expanded once inside the body. The South American, alongside Dr Stewart Reuter, his mentor and esteemed radiologist, and Dr Richard Schatz, a cardiologist and major investor, patented the stent technology in 1985. The medical impact of Palmaz’s innovation was colossal and seemingly unparalleled.
Fun fact: Within 4 years of the stent’s FDA approval, it was used in over 80% of percutaneous coronary intervention procedures and has saved many lives since its creation.
Who knew that CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing tests to tell Computers and Humans Apart”? Because I certainly didn’t.
The capture code was invented by Guatemalan professor and entrepreneur Luis Von Ahn (1978- ). Von Ahn was born and raised in the Central American country and moved to the US to study Mathematics at Duke University in 1996, before going on to Carnegie Mellon University to study computer science, a subject in which he became a professor and specialised in human-based computation.
Von Ahn worked on the early pioneering of CAPTCHAs alongside Manuel Blum in 2000. CAPTCHAs are used on websites to prevent automated programs (“bots”) from causing large-scale harm. He has since gone on to invent reCAPTCHA in 2007, which was a new form of CAPTCHA that helps to digitize books. He sold his company reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009, which is currently used by over 100,000 web sites and transcribes over 40 million words per day.
He also pioneered the ESP game, which is a human-based computation game, built on the concept of the computational power of humans to fulfil tasks that computers cannot, in the guise of a game. Google acquired a license to create its own version of Von Ahn’s creation and called it the Google Image Labeller in 2006.
In his own words, Von Ahn writes: “I build systems that combine humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone. I call this Human Computation, but others sometimes call it Crowdsourcing.”
Fun fact: Von Ahn is the co-founder and CEO of successful language-learning app Duolingo.