Science and technology define our world – and continue to mold and transform it!
These innovations have become ingrained in our way of life, from the contraceptive pill to Coca-Cola to artificial intelligence.
But how did we get here? Was it by accident? Or as a consequence of competition and hard work? Or maybe even luck?
Well, more often than not, it combines all these things and more!
American Innovations, hosted by Steven Johnson, is a podcast that aims to tell the stories of scientists, engineers, and ordinary people who have played a role in some of the most tremendous scientific and technological advances of the last century.
Johnson uses immersive scenes and thoroughly researched material to provide listeners with accurate, nuanced, and, most importantly, engaging accounts of the best American innovations (and some of the worst).
Below, I’ve listed my favorite episodes to get you started on this great pod. Check them out!
Table of Contents
Coca-Cola | The Cocaine Clinician
Coca-Cola is one of the most well-known and popular beverages in the world. But, many people don’t know that it has a complicated origin story.
Specifically, Coca-Cola was originally intended to be a patent medicine, supposedly able to cure morphine addiction, indigestion, nerve disorders, headaches, and even impotence.
This episode of American Innovations explores the origins of Coca-Cola. After the Civil War, Atlanta emerged as the New South’s cultural capital.
Due to excessive poverty and disease, the region looked for salvation in the cure-all tonics produced by the pharmacy trade – but what they received would become one of the most infamous beverages ever.
The Birth Control Pill | But Can It Be Done?
The birth control pill is heralded as one of the most important inventions for women’s health and freedom. But its development in the U.S. wasn’t simple.
When Margaret Sanger, the birth control pill pioneer, opened a birth control clinic in 1916, she knew she was breaking the law.
This episode of American Innovations discusses how radical the idea of a safe, effective, and discrete form of birth control was at this time, despite the high rate of infant deaths, miscarriages, and severe illnesses due to pregnancy.
It also explores the many barriers Sanger had to break down in developing the contraceptive pill.
Dynamite | The Controlled Explosion
Today, dynamite is used frequently in many industries, such as mining, quarrying, construction, and demolition.
Considering the crazy innovations that scientists are making today, it’s hard to think of dynamite as a game-changing invention. But that is exactly what it was, and this episode of American Innovations explains why.
It follows the story of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor who became obsessed with harnessing the power of the volatile compound nitroglycerine.
While many other scientists turned their back on discovering this compound due to safety concerns, Nobel dreamt of harnessing the power of this chemical to begin an engineering revolution.
Electronic Television | A Great Depression And The World’s Fair
The introduction of electronic television into citizens’ homes would change the world forever. But, many don’t realize that this iconic invention resulted in a lengthy court battle between two inventors who wanted to claim ownership.
This episode of American Innovations consists of a deep dive into how electronic television came about.
It discusses how, while one man, David Sarnoff, was plotting the domination of the television industry, another man, Philo Farnsworth, was unknowingly holding the missing piece that would give life to Sarnoff’s dreams.
But, given the importance of both parties in producing the electronic television, who has the right to claim ownership?
Thinking Machines | Artificial Intelligence
There was once a time, not that long ago, wherein Artificial Intelligence was just the stuff of science fiction.
However, that is no longer the case. And Artificial Intelligence will only get much more powerful over the coming years.
AI is likely the most influential and transformative technology in the 21st century. If you’re a self-proclaimed tech nerd, I’m sure that you will love this episode of American Innovations.
It is the beginning of a four-part series that attempts to explore and understand humanity’s desire to breathe intellectual life into computers.
Video Games | Home Invasion
While arcade games were widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s, video games were largely unwelcome in people’s homes.
However, in 1975, the co-founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, decided to set his sights on making game consoles in the home the next frontier in the gaming industry.
However, this wasn’t an easy task. This episode of American Innovations explores why Bushnell’s idea was so difficult to accomplish and how he managed to do so. This is the perfect episode for any gaming fanatic!
Innovation Fails: De Lorean | Driven To Succeed
While most episodes of this podcast focus on innovations that have become some of the most useful or popular products today, this one is slightly different. Instead, this episode focuses on a notable failure.
The DeLorean was a car that experts predicted would change the automotive industry forever. It was supposed to be quick, fuel-efficient, affordable, and durable.
As the world’s first ethical sports car, DeLorean could have broken Detroit’s monopoly on car manufacturing. But this didn’t happen, and this episode explores why!
Airplane | The Flight Of The June Bug
When you think of the early days of American aviation, the Wright brothers are likely the first to come to mind.
But, the most pioneering developments in the aviation industry, such as the first intercity flight, the first pilot’s license, and the first commercially sold airplane, actually had nothing to do with the Wright brothers.
All of these achievements belong to Glenn Hammond Curtiss. So, why have most people never heard his name before?
This episode of American Innovations explains how the actual father of modern aviation has continued to go under the radar, despite his incredible achievements in the industry.
Nuclear Energy | Meltdown | 4
The first serious accident from nuclear fission occurred in America back in 1960.
Despite all efforts, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw such events play out across countries worldwide.
We strongly recommend this episode if you want to know more about nuclear meltdowns.
It documents all the nuclear disasters, and the sound effects and storytelling will leave you hooked from the beginning until the end.
Electric Chair | War of the Currents | 1
The invention of the electric chair is a true pioneer achievement.
It paved the way for more sophisticated forms of execution and introduced them into everyday life.
But when prisoner William Kemmler was the first one to be executed by an electric chair, this method turned out to be nothing but gruesome.
But the electric chair story is just one small chapter in an epic conflict between three titans: Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse.
They were all fighting for control over the use of electricity – a war that would spark many advances within science and revolutionize human existence.
This episode is a classic, so make sure to check it out!
Skylab: NASA’s Best-Kept Secret| We Fix Anything
The Skylab NASA was an American space station that orbited Earth between 1973 and 1979.
Three successive crews spent long periods aboard this newly renamed Freedom Space Ship, conducting in-depth research into how humans functioned in isolation without outside help.
Until the last moon landing in 1972, Skylab was an underdog program that lived in the shadow of Apollo.
Its time to shine had finally come in 1973, except when it launched its last mission before entering into bankruptcy.
With NASA budgets being cut hard, any misstep could set the entire American space program back for decades.
Chewing Gum: Snapping and Stretching
Chewing gum has plenty of benefits: it keeps your teeth in good shape, freshens up your breath, and can be a great stress reliever.
But where did the gum business start?
In mid-1800s Maine, John bacon Curtis had an idea to create gum – but not just any kind! For decades, he searched the right formula for the ideal chew.
This podcast episode tells the tale of a gum business with many challenges along the way. From conflicts with newspaper tycoons and oil refineries to finding an ally in Napoleon of West!
American Innovations is informative and entertaining, and this episode is no exception!
Star Wars’ Cinema Technology | The Audience is Listening
The sounds of Star Wars are so iconic that they’re instantly recognized by audiences worldwide.
But how did those unique effects come to be?
In 1975, George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted Star Wars to look like, but he was tired of synthetic and electronic cliches that often characterized sci-fi movies from that time.
But when George heard about a young designer named Ben Burtt who could make sounds come alive with just his microphone and recorder, that sounded promising.
Ben Burtt was there at every step in developing one of the moviegoing’s most memorable soundscapes – and you can hear the fascinating story here in this episode!