10 for the Ages

A brief history of innovators who made their marks under 40

by Peter Merrill

Because this month’s QP cover article is focused on new voices of quality, I was inspired to do some research and create a top 10 list of innovators who made their marks under the age of 40. I found it remarkable how many significant breakthroughs were achieved by young minds.

It also is impressive when you consider that many innovators succeeded while others were working on the same problems. Consider the story of Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 arriving at the Boston patent office just hours ahead of a competing inventor, Elisha Gray, to file his patent for the telephone—which was followed by litigation.1 Most of the people included in this list were involved in some kind of argument about whether they were first.

The innovators are listed by date, and this means the first innovations may seem unremarkable in the context of today’s knowledge. But at the time, these were significant breakthroughs.

The spinning frame

In 1768, when Richard Arkwright was 36, he invented the spinning frame. Following his invention, Arkwright mechanized all the preparatory and spinning processes for making cotton fabric and began setting up water-powered cotton mills. With help from others, he built the world’s first water-powered mill, which employed about 200 people in 1771.

The problem in weaving cloth was that the "weft" yarn, which crossed back and forth over the "warp" yarn, was subject to far more stress and was always breaking. Arkwright perfected his spinning frame, which led to a much stronger weft yarn. His success encouraged others to copy him, so he had great difficulty in enforcing the patent he eventually was granted in 1775. His spinning frame was a significant technical advance because little training was required of operators.2

The steam road locomotive

In 1801, at age 30, Richard Trevithick invented a full-size steam road locomotive. Trevithick named his carriage "Puffing Devil." That year on Christmas Eve, he demonstrated it by carrying six passengers through Camborne in Cornwall, United Kingdom, to the nearby village of Beacon.

This was the first demonstration of steam-powered transportation. In 1802, Trevithick filed a patent for his high-pressure steam engine. To prove his ideas, he built a stationary engine at Coalbrookdale Co. in Shropshire. The engine ran at 40 piston strokes per minute with an unprecedented boiler pressure of 145 psi. This was the start of what became known as the Industrial Revolution.3

The electric motor

In 1821, when he was 30, Michael Faraday invented the electric motor. Faraday, while considered a leading chemist, was best known for his work related to electricity and magnetism. His initial discovery led to the discovery of electromagnetism. Faraday’s breakthrough came when he wrapped two insulated coils of wire around an iron ring and found that passing a current through one coil induced a momentary current in the other coil.

This is now known as mutual induction. He found that if he moved a magnet through a loop of wire, an electric current flowed in the wire and that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field. This relationship was named Faraday’s Law. Faraday would later use the principles he discovered to construct the electric dynamo—an ancestor of modern power generators and electric motors.4

The telephone

In 1875, when Alexander Graham Bell was 28 years old, he invented the telephone. In 1874, Western Union contracted with Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find out how to send multiple telegraph messages on a telegraph line and avoid the cost of new lines. Bell told Gardiner Hubbard, a lawyer and philanthropist, and Thomas Sanders, a businessman, that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire, and they began to financially support Bell’s experiments.

In 1875, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph and drew up a patent application for it. Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell’s lawyer filed Bell’s application with the patent office. There is much debate about who arrived first, and Gray later challenged Bell’s patent.5

The phonograph

In 1877, when he was 30, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. Edison began his career as an inventor who improved telegraph devices, but the phonograph first gained him recognition. Edison later became known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

His first phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a cylinder. The sound was poor and recordings could only be played a few times, but it made him famous. In April 1878, Edison traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the phonograph before the National Academy of Sciences, congressmen, senators and President Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Washington Post described Edison as a genius, and although Edison obtained a patent for the phonograph in 1878, he did not develop it until the 1880s. He is better known for working on many other electrical inventions.6

The induction motor

In 1887, when he was 31, Nikola Tesla developed the induction motor. It ran on an alternating current—a power system format that was starting to be built in Europe and the United States because of its advantages in long-distance, high-voltage transmission.

The motor used a polyphase current, which generated a rotating magnetic field to turn the motor (a principle that Tesla claimed to have conceived five years earlier). Patented in 1888, this motor was a simple, self-starting design that did not need a commutator, and avoided sparking and high maintenance costs associated with mechanical brushes. Westinghouse Electric Co. considered getting a patent on a similar induction motor that was developed in 1885, but it decided Tesla’s patent would probably control the market.7

The airplane

In 1903, at the ages of 39 and 35, Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright flew the first airplane. The Wrights based their aircraft design on work done in the 1890s by other aeronauts. They designed the wings with a curvature on the top surface for better lift. At first, Wilbur Wright incorrectly believed a tail was not necessary.

Their shop mechanic built an engine in just six weeks, keeping the weight low by using an engine block cast from aluminum. The engine had a primitive carburetor and no fuel pump. Fuel was gravity-fed from the fuel tank, and the fuel-air mixture was vaporized by heat from the crankcase. The Wrights finally took to the air on Dec. 17, 1903, making two flights each from level ground into a freezing headwind. Their altitude was about 10 feet above the ground.8

The television

In 1925, when he was 37, John Logie Baird invented the television. In February 1924, Baird demonstrated that a semi-mechanical analog television system was possible by transmitting moving images. He gave the first public demonstration of moving images by television at Selfridges department store in March 1925.

Earlier that year in his lab, Baird transmitted the first television picture with a grayscale image: the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy in a 30-line vertically scanned image, at five pictures per second. Baird brought in a person from his office—20-year-old William Taynton—to see what a human face would look like. This made Taynton the first person to be televised in a full tonal range.9

The turbojet engine

In 1937, at age 30, Frank Whittle single-handedly invented the turbojet engine. From an early age, Whittle demonstrated an aptitude for engineering and an interest in flying. At Cranwell Aircraft Apprentices School, he learned the theory of aircraft engines, excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot.

While writing his thesis, he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, and he filed a patent for his design in 1930. He and two retired Royal Air Force servicemen formed Power Jets Ltd. to build his engine with assistance from the British Thomson-Houston firm. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created and first ran in 1937.10

The Apple I

In 1976, at age 26, Steve Wozniak developed the Apple Computer 1, also known as Apple I. He alone designed the hardware, circuit board designs and operating system for the Apple I. Steve Jobs had the idea to sell it as a fully assembled printed circuit board.

Skeptical at first, Wozniak was later convinced by Jobs that, even if they were not successful, they could at least say to their grandkids they once had their own company.

They sold some of their possessions, raised $1,300 and assembled the first boards in Jobs’ bedroom. The Apple I sold for $666.66, and the first 50 system boards were sold to a new computer store called the Byte Shop.11

Age is just a number

Although credit is often given to one person, breakthroughs usually result from a team effort and typically occur over an extended period of time. Some innovators did not make the list because they were more than 40 years old, such as John Harrison, who at age 68 created the marine chronometer—a timepiece that’s accurate enough to be a portable time standard—and George Stephenson, who built and ran the first passenger railway at age 44.

But don’t let age deter you. Remember what James Bond said to Q in the movie "Skyfall," "… youth is no guarantee of innovation."


  1. "This Day in History: Alexander Graham Bell Patents the Telephone," History.com, http://tinyurl.com/alexander-graham-qp.
  2. "Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)," BBC.co.uk, http://tinyurl.com/arkwright-qp.
  3. L.T.C. Rolt, "Richard Trevithick," Britannica.com, http://tinyurl.com/trevithick-qp.
  4. "Michael Faraday (1791-1867)," BBC.co.uk, http://tinyurl.com/faraday-qp.
  5. "Alexander Graham Bell," Biography.com, http://tinyurl.com/graham-bell-qp.
  6. "Thomas Edison," Biography.com, http://tinyurl.com/edison-qp.
  7. Wikipedia, "Nikola Tesla," Wikipedia.org, http://tinyurl.com/tesla-qp.
  8. "Wright Brothers," History.com, http://tinyurl.com/wright-brothers-qp.
  9. "John Logie Baird (1888-1946)," BBC.co.uk, http://tinyurl.com/wright-brothers-qp.
  10. Robert Hardman, "The Genius Who Shrank the Globe," Daily Mail, April 22, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/hardman-qp.
  11. Wikipedia, "Steve Wozniak," Wikipedia.org, http://tinyurl.com/wozniak-qp.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009) and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank.

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