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IMA Executive News & Views Blog

Steel Plow, Cellphone, the Pill Top List of Best Illinois Innovations, Inventions

Staff Report from The State Journal-Register

Voters have chosen agricultural breakthroughs, high-tech triumphs and life-saving ideas as the top inventions and innovations in state history as part of the ongoing Illinois Top 200 project.

Winners in the online voting include the steel plow, which opened the prairies to agricultural development, and barbed wire, which transformed farming and ranching nationwide.

Voters also recognized the impact of the birth-control pill, which changed both individual lives and American society, and the blood bank, an idea that has saved countless lives.

The state’s contributions to computer science and communications technology were honored, too. Voters put cell phone and early experiments in computer-assisted education on the list of top inventions.

Here’s the full top 10 list:

  • Steel plow — Early settlers in prairie states faced a big problem: Their cast-iron plows bogged down in the thick, sticky soil. Then blacksmith John Deere thought of trying steel in 1837. His new design cut through the soil easily.
  • Cellphone — You can thank “Star Trek” and Motorola for that cellphone you carry. A Motorola engineer was inspired by “Star Trek” communicators to create the first cellphone in 1973. A consumer version debuted 10 years later.
  • Birth control — Development of the Pill goes back to 1952, when noretynodrel was synthesized at G.D. Searle in Skokie. In 1960 it was approved for use as birth control.
  • Skyscraper — The world’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago in 1885. Ever since, Chicago architects and developers have pushed skyscrapers to new heights and new artistic significance.
  • Blood bank — In 1937 Bernard Fantus looked at recent progress in blood science and came up with an idea: a place to store blood until it was needed. He opened the first American blood bank at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
  • Mail order — Until 1872, rural shoppers basically had no choice but to shop at the local store and pay its prices. Then came Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago, who introduced the idea of shopping from catalogs.
  • Barbed wire — Inventors had been tinkering with the idea of barbed wire for years before Joseph Glidden of DeKalb came up with a practical version in 1874. His invention made it possible to control livestock and protect crops.
  • Silo — They’re so common today that it’s easy to assume silos have always been part of farming, but they’re actually less than 150 years old. Until Fred Hatch built the first tower silo in 1873 near Spring Grove, grain was usually stored in pits.
  • Meatpacking — The modern meatpacking industry began in Chicago, whose position as a railway center made it ideal for bringing in livestock, butchering it, then sending it around the country. It changed the way America ate.
  • Computer-assisted education — The first general computer-assisted learning system originated at the University of Illinois in 1960. By the late 1970s, PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was offering courses on terminals around the world.

The Illinois Top 200 project lets Illinoisans vote every two weeks on an array of categories. By the state’s 200th birthday on Dec. 3, voters will have chosen 10 favorites in 20 different categories — the Illinois Top 200.

Voting in the next category, top buildings, is underway at Nominees include Chicago skyscrapers, homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the state’s oldest building and two religious shrines.

Future categories include authors, musicians, actors, leaders and unforgettable moments. Everyone is invited to suggest possible nominees in each category by using the hashtag #ILtop200 on social media.

The Illinois Top 200 is a joint initiative of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, The State Journal-Register and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.


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