Game changers

By Leopold Wieland
Gutenberg, Benz, Edison, Curie, Röntgen, Gates or Musk – almost everyone is familiar with the names of these innovation drivers. But do you know to whom we owe the zipper, industrial paper production or ferroconcrete? Nine brief, exciting portraits of people without whose pioneering spirit today’s world would be a different one.
© Getty

Fatima Al-Fihri

approx. 800–880

© gemeinfrei

The oldest active university of the modern era is, of course, located in London. Or is it Athens? Paris, Berlin or Rome? None of these cities is correct because the city of Fès in Morocco can lay claim to this distinction. Plus, it wasn’t an old scholar or prince seeking to expand his knowledge that founded this institution of higher learning in 895 A.D. but a merchant’s daughter named Fatima Al-Fihri. A horrific year for the devout Muslim, in which her father, brother and husband die within just a few weeks of each other provides the impetus – at least according to the written accounts of chronicler Ibn Abi Zar’ in the 14th century. Together with her sister, Al-Fihri inherits a significant fortune. The two women use it to build a mosque in Fès. Fatima Al-Fihri’s spiritual building, in the planning of which she participates with profound architectural knowledge, is called Al-Qarawiyyin and, in addition to places of prayer and education, encompasses an extensive library. As a result, the complex is regarded as the first modern university and its founder as a pioneer in education and early trailblazer for academic careers of women. 

Why her work changed the world
  • Her institution of prayer and education, Al-Qarawiyyin, became the blueprint for modern universities
  • It provided a gateway to education for members of many social classes
  • She was a thought leader in academic exchanges between the Western and the Arab world
  • Al-Qarawiyyin graduate Pope Silvester II (950–1003) united ­letters in the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals  
Game changers
Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fès (Morocco)© Wikimedia Commons/Younesberrada

Friedrich Fischer & Georg Schaeffler

1849–1899 & 1917–1996

They lived and worked in different centuries, yet they were driven by the same basic motive: “to get things rolling” – as effortlessly as possible. The men we’re talking about are the two “titans of roller bearings” and company founders, Friedrich Fischer (pictured left) and Dr.-Ing. E. h. Georg Schaeffler (r.), whose paths merged posthumously in 2001. But let’s begin with the locksmith Friedrich Fischer from Schweinfurt. He not only inherits his tinkering genes from his father, Philipp Moritz Fischer, but also his love of bicycles. ­Fischer senior is regarded as the inventor of the pedal-crank bicycle, his son starts selling bicycles. But business could be better. In the 1870s, the bicycle is still in the infancy of its evolutionary development and pedaling is truly hard work. Fischer junior wants to change that to make his merchandise more attractive to customers. What he’s lacking to minimize rolling resistances is ball bearings with perfectly shaped rolling elements. But they’re simply not available in the marketplace, so Fischer takes action himself. Following time- and cost-consuming experiments, he presents his ball grinding mill in 1883 (l.). At the end of a grinding process, the sophisticated device spits out balls that are exactly of the same size and exactly round, plus it does so in large volumes and therefore at low costs. The ball grinding machine that is patented in 1890 helps the ball bearing previously sketched out by Leonardo da Vinci to finally achieve its breakthrough and plays a significant part in the first bicycle boom in the eighteen-nineteens as well. In addition, the ball grinding mill lays the technological foundation for Fischer’s joint-stock company, Fischer’s Aktien-Gesellschaft, or FAG for short. Like Friedrich Fischer some 70 years before him, Georg Schaeffler is not happy with the bearings available in the marketplace. Except that in his case they’re needle roller bearings instead of ball bearings. The needle roller bearings at that time are full-complement types, which means that the needle rollers are in contact with each other, run against each other with a lot of friction and, in the worst albeit not rare case, start locking. Although Georg Schaeffler has not been trained in a technical vocation or profession, he – like Fischer – is a gifted inventor, obsessed with detail and constantly challenging things. The problem that’s on his mind at the moment inspires an idea in him as well. As time will prove shortly afterwards, it’s a brilliant idea: providing the needles in the needle cage with greater guidance. The first tests start in February 1950. The results are convincing, Schaeffler’s cage-guided needle roller bearings (r.) exhibit extremely low wear and friction. The patent application is filed in September 1950 and the first production orders are won shortly afterwards. With this invention Georg Schaeff­ler lays the foundation for the rapid growth of the family business he founded together with his brother Wilhelm in 1946. In 2001, five years after Georg Schaeff­ler’s death, then INA-Holding Schaeffler KG acquires FAG Kugelfischer AG, and so the paths of the two inventors and “rolling bearing titans” merge. 

Why their work changed the world
  • The ball bearing invented by Leonardo da Vinci only turns into a truly perfect component as a result of Fischer’s ball grinding mill
  • One in three roller or plain bearings sold in the world is a ball bearing. The global market volume amounts to some 40 billion dollars
  • Whether toys, household appliances, robots, automobiles or aircraft – there are few devices involving motion that don’t use roller bearings
  • Today, Schaeffler’s needle roller bearing portfolio includes more than 15,000 versions
  • 100 billion needle roller bearings have been produced by Schaeffler since the patent application was filed in 1950
Game changers
Friedrich Fischer presents his ball grinding mill in 1883, the sophisticated device spits out balls that are exactly of the same size and exactly round© gemeinfrei
Game changers
Company founder Georg Schaeffler uses a cage to give the needles in the needle roller bearing more guidance – an idea that fueled the rapid growth of the family-owned company

Otto von Guericke


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Does nothingness exist? That’s a question the philosophers in Ancient Greece already wrestle with (and that remains unanswered). In the middle of the 17th century, several scientists, independently of each other, try to experimentally prove nothingness in the form of a vacuum. The mayor of Magdeburg and amateur physicist Otto von Guericke manages to do so most impressively. To create a vacuum, he incidentally invents the principle of the vacuum pump that’s still in use today. In his “Magdeburg hemispheres experiment” (in 1657, pictured below) he pumps so much air out of a sphere formed by placing two metal hemispheres together that the resulting pressure difference between the inside and outside is so great that it takes several horses (up to 16, according to lore) to pull the hemispheres apart again. He goes on to demonstrate that light, but not sound, can penetrate vacuums. Later, Guericke wants to prove another natural phenomenon – the existence of unicorns – but fails in this attempt.   

Why his work changed the world
  • His experiments with air pressures inspired Guericke’s idea to use a barometer for weather forecasts, so making hima pioneer in meteorology 
  • The subject of vacuums to which Guericke provided decisive impetus laid the foundation for countless inventions, from the incandescent light bulb to packaging solutions to the supersonic Hyperloop train that’s supposed to glide in vacuum tubes 
Game changers
16 horses try to tear apart the Magdeburg hemispheres in this drawing© gemeinfrei

Emmy Noether


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Mathematics and all the worlds of thought that are behind it: Emmy Noether wants to explore them. However, at the end of the 19th century, her real world in Germany blocks the educational pathway into all natural sciences for women. In 1900, her diploma as a language teacher opens a back door to the university in her home town of Erlangen for her, so she begins her studies of mathematics as a guest student. In 1903, Bavaria allows women to enroll in the state’s universities for the first time and Emmy Noether blossoms into an academic superstar, provides fundamental insights relating to structural algebra and revolutionizes theoretical physics. Her most important proposition, Noether’s theorem published in 1918, states that every differentiable symmetry (e.g., time or space) of a physical system with conservative forces has a corresponding conservation law (e.g., energy or impulse). In spite of her global recognition, not a single German university appoints her as a full professor. Only after Noether, a Jew, emigrates to the United States in 1933, does she find her first appropriately salaried position. Emmy Noether dies in 1935 following tumor surgery. Her professional friend Albert Einstein honors the 53-year-old in an obituary in the New York Times, calling her “the most significant creative mathematical genius since the higher education of women began.”  

Why her work changed the world
  • Noether has made algebra the leading research topic in mathematics worldwide
  • Her abilities, her courage and her mental strength have made her a role model for many STEM talents until this day 
  • Noether’s theorem is regarded as a fundamental of theoretical physics
Game changers
Noether's theorem links elementary physical quantities such as charge, energy, and momentum with geometric properties© gemeinfrei

Gideon Sundbäck


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Buttons, ribbons, bands, strings, buckles, clasps, hooks and eyes – all of them are time-tested fasteners around 1850, but they require the use of two hands. The zipper makes closing and opening bags, shoes, jackets and trousers much easier. In 1851, the American Elias Howe obtains a patent for an “automatic, continuous clothing closure.” However, his mechanism fails in practical use. In 1912, Gideon Sundback ultimately makes the concept practically usable. The mechanical engineer who has emigrated to the United States from Sweden invents a row of slats cut from a metal tape. One each is sewn to the edges of the pieces of fabric to be connected. By means of a slide – today called a zipper – the rows of slats located on the left- and right-hand side or the delicate spirals that are used later as well can be easily hooked together or unhooked, in other words closed and opened. Sundbäck uses zippers on a larger scale for the first time in 1917, for combat uniforms of the U.S. Navy. In 1930, they start becoming a mass product used in everyday clothing. Today, annual sales of zippers worldwide amount to 20 billion U.S. dollars. 

Why his work changed the world
  • Zippers are truly usable universally, even for sheathing an underwater cable as a 632-meter (2,073-feet) long XXL-size version 
  • Drivers copy the zipper method for fluid alternate merging at bottlenecks in the road
  • Zipper bandages are even used to treat wounds
Game changers
The Sundbäck zipper was patented in 1917© gemeinfrei

Grace Hopper


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“Man of the year” is a title that a woman can earn only in America. It happens in 1969 when the Data Processing Management Association in the United States presents the coveted award to Grace Hopper. Hopper, who becomes a computer science research fellow at Harvard University and a reserve admiral of the U.S. Navy is fascinated by technology at an early age. After high school, she studies physics and mathematics. In the Second World War, Hopper gets a job with the Navy and is assigned to the Mark I computer programming project team for the first programmable mainframe in the U.S. She’s only the third person to do programming work there. It’s a tedious task, so in 1949 “Amazing Grace” starts developing a revolutionary method enabling programmers to work with source code taking cues from human language instead of with cryptic machine codes. In 1952, the program called Compiler is ready for use. Hopper delivers the corresponding computer language shortly afterwards: FLOW-MATIC. The further development called COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) makes her the superstar of the computer scene once and for all. COBOL is still being used today, especially for business applications. “Grandma Cobol” continues to serve science and the Navy, which even names one of its ships “Hopper,” until her 80th year of age. In addition to her “Man of the year” recognition, she receives more than 90 other awards and more than 40 honorary doctorates. 

Why her work changed the world
  • 60-year-old COBOL is the “wedge writing” among programming languages – but still drives computing systems around the world
  • The demand for COBOL programmers has been continuously increasing again in recent years, which is another fact that demonstrates the timelessness of this computing language 
  • The term “bug” for software flaws was coined by Hopper
  • She also expressed her pioneering spirit in famous quotes such as: “If in doubt – do it!” or “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”

Nicolas-Louis Robert & Friedrich Gottlob Keller

1761–1821 & 1816–1895

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In the old days, rags are the raw material predominantly used for paper. When demand skyrockets at the end of the 18th century and rags become scarce, a fight ensues among the workers of the handmade paper trade in Europe. Exactly this feud drives the French engineer Nicolas Louis Robert (above, left) to replace the complex process of handmade paper by a machine. In 1799, Robert files a patent application for the first machine using the long-screen principle with which continuous paper can be produced on a continuous web – which still provides the basis for modern paper production. So much for production technology. Paper per se, the way we know it today, is invented by someone else. Friedrich Gottlob Keller, a weaver from Saxony, while observing wasps build their nests and recalling the grinding of cherry stones from his childhood days, comes up with the idea of developing a cheap raw material for paper by defibering wood by means of a machine (pictured below). In spite of their breakthrough achievements, neither inventor becomes wealthy in his lifetime. Robert sells his patent, becomes a teacher and dies in poverty. More than 20 years will pass before Keller’s invention is ready for mass production – too long to make him a wealthy man. 

Why their work changed the world
  • Affordable books and magazines for everyone – practically inconceivable without cheap paper  
  • Paper as a mass product is still an important basis for education, research and exchange of information
Game changers
Defibering wood by means of a machine© gemeinfrei

Joseph Monier


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What does the Empire State Building have to do with a gardener from Paris? Quite a bit! But one thing after another. In the middle of the 19th century, Joseph Monier, a gardener in the Baroque gardens of the Louvre, is looking for a new material for his planters. It’s supposed to be lightweight, cheap and, above all, more weather-resistant than the wood that’s been used so far. He experiments with various cement mixtures. Once he’s come up with the right one, he uses it to encase a wire mesh that provides the required shape and support. Et voilà: here’s Monier’s reinforced concrete. Monier is not the only one who’s thrilled with his material that combines pressure resistance with tensile strength in equal measure. Alongside the gas engine and hydraulic elevator his reinforced concrete aka ferroconcrete is one of the admired novelties at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. He files six patent applications including addendums: for pipes, troughs and coffins, for stairs, façade slabs and a system for manufacturing “fixed or portable hygienic and economical houses from cement and iron.” The technical term “Monier iron” can still be heard at construction sites today. And skyscrapers like the Empire State Building wouldn’t even be thinkable without reinforced concrete. 

Why his work changed the world
  • There would be no skyscrapers without Monier’s invention
  • Monier2: The utilization of high-tech fibers instead of steel has raised the performance of reinforced concrete to even higher levels   
  • Many composite materials such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and lightweight constructions use Monier’s reinforcement idea
Game changers
Skyscrapers like the Empire State Building wouldn’t even be thinkable without reinforced concrete© Dorian Mongel/unsplash

Shirley Ann Jackson


© Getty

“Colored girls should learn a trade.” In 1964, Shirley Ann Jackson defies this “good advice” of a professor. After her first year in college, the native of Washington D.C. majors in physics. In 1973, she’s the first African-American woman to earn a PhD at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After superconductors and elementary particles, Jackson successfully does research work in solid state and quantum physics, followed by her greatest breakthroughs in the field of telecommunications, where she provides the scientific foundations for fiber optics cables, touch-tone phones, caller ID and fax machines. U.S. President Barack Obama makes Jackson one of his most important advisors for technological progress. From 1999 until today – as the first woman and first African-American to do so – she has been president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Shirley Ann Jackson leads North America’s oldest technical university back to the top of the world’s ranking both ­academically and financially.

Why her work changed the world and still does
  • She has provided research fundamentals for modern telecommunications 
  • She has been a trailblazer for women and ethnic minorities in STEM subjects 
  • A worldwide leader and unifying figure especially for young natural scientists