It’s no secret that Alabamians are creative, innovative and always thinking about the next big thing. In fact, Alabama natives have been behind some incredible inventions that you use in your day-to-day life. We picked out five Alabama inventors and their pioneering inventions to share.
1. Mary Anderson — The Windshield Wiper
The next time you flick on your windshield wipers, remember to think Alabama native Mary Anderson. Born in Greene County, Mary Anderson spent her childhood in Birmingham and worked as a real estate developer, building the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue.
During a trip to New York City in 1903, Mary Anderson noticed that her trolley driver was having trouble seeing from the from windshield due to rain and sleet. Once she returned to Alabama, she helped design and secure a patent for the first windshield wiper. After her patent expired in 1920, car manufacturers such as Cadillac began implementing her design on all standard cars.
2. Lonnie Johnson — Super Soaker
Mobile, Alabama native Lonnie Johnson is a former Air Force and NASA engineer who holds over 100 patents. But the entrepreneur is known for his invention of one of the best-selling toys in the world—the Super Soaker.
In the late 1980s, Lonnie Johnson formed his own engineering firm and began selling his Super Soaker invention through a toy manufacturer. By 1991, the Super Soaker generated more than $200M in sales!
3. Percy Julian — Arthritis Treatment
In the Jim Crow Era, Montgomery native Percy Julian worked hard to further his education and create a better life for himself and others. He graduated from DePauw University, earned a Master’s degree at Harvard and secured his Doctorate from the University of Vienna. In fact, Percy Julian was one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D in Chemistry.
After returning to the States, Percy Julian started his own company to start synthesizing chemicals. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone, which is now used to help alleviate the effects of arthritis. During his lifetime, Percy Julian receive upwards of 130 patents!
4. George F. Kirchoff, Jr. — Airbag
Mary Anderson wasn’t the only Alabamian to improve car safety. Jefferson County native George F. Kirchoff, Jr. helped design rockets and rocket engines for aerospace applications, but was laid off in the 1970s. He then moved his attention and engineering skills towards the development of a safe and effective airbag for motor vehicles. Utilizing his knowledge of rocket propellants, Kirchoff developed a system that inflated the airbag in a matter of milliseconds.
Airbags starting becoming common in cars in the 1980s, and were made mandatory in all new vehicle sales by the United States in 1998. Since their introduction, airbags have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
5. Waldo Semon — Vinyl
Any other fans of vinyl records out there? If you love collecting vintage records like me, make sure to thank Demopolis native Waldo Semon the next time you spin your favorite LP. In the 1920s, Waldo Semon and the B.F. Goodrich company discovered the formula for polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) by mixing several synthetic polymers.
Before then, phonograph records were made using shellac, a tough and somewhat brittle resin from female lac bugs. Compared to shellac, vinyl was more durable and offered reduced surface noise (or hiss). Starting in the 1940s, record companies began pressing their albums onto Waldo Semon’s vinyl formula.