50 inventions you might not know were funded by the US government

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December 9, 2020

50 inventions you might not know were funded by the US government

It’s no secret that the United States government has played a huge role in the creation of major technological and medical breakthroughs over the past few hundred years, but did you know that it’s responsible for many of the devices and products that many people use every day?

If you’ve ever used a GPS system, you have the Defense Department’s research to thank. What about your smartphone? Although the government didn’t directly fund the exact phone you own, NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the CIA were integral in creating crucial elements of today’s smartphones—such as microchips and touch screens. Even the internet, which makes reading this story possible, began as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), a computer network first made by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Perhaps one of the most consequential fields that has benefited most crucially from government support is that of medicine. Many vaccines that prevent millions of Americans from contracting preventable diseases—from the common flu to Haemophilus influenzae type B—were funded and developed with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More recently, the federal initiative Operation Warp Speed was established to facilitate the manufacture and distribution of the coronavirus vaccines.

However, government research and funding have been integral to so many inventions, big and small, that it can be hard to find a starting point when learning about which ones can be credited to various supporting agencies. Stacker compiled information about government-funded creations using a combination of news, scientific, and government reports. The inventions on this list encompass a wide variety of areas, including technology, agriculture, medicine, aviation, and others.

From the beginnings of the civilian aviation industry in 1925 to a COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough in 2020, read on to learn about 50 inventions you might not know were funded by the U.S. government.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1925: The civilian aviation industry

Powered flight began in the early 20th century, but the American aviation industry didn’t make major advancements until World War I, when the military solicited aircraft from private manufacturers. However, the modern-day civilian aviation industry began in earnest when private companies were allowed to contract out mail routes, and the U.S. Navy and Army funded advances in aeronautical design.

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Express // Getty Images

1945: The Doppler radar

The weather-detecting radar wouldn’t have come about without NSF-funded research to create accurate forecasting models. This same funding also helped create the National Weather Service and Storm Prediction Center.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1945: The flu shot

The first flu shot was developed by the NIH. In its first form, it was an inactivated influenza vaccine given to American citizens.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1946: MRIs

These days, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to detect many potential health problems, from tumors to multiple sclerosis. But magnetic resonance was originally used to study atomic nuclei in 1946, and with the help of grants from the NSF from 1955 to 1990, the technology soon became a regular medical tool.

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Jf268 // Wikimedia Commons

1949: Accelerometers

Accelerometers are used to measure acceleration forces, often to find an object’s position and track its movement. They have been made commercially since 1949, and even today, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) continually makes and monitors them to use in cars, planes, pacemakers, and more.

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Dan // Wikimedia Commons

1953: Supercomputers

Largely a product used almost exclusively by national governments, the U.S. National Lab funded efforts to create supercomputers that could conduct nuclear research. IBM created the first commercial computer, called the 701, for defense purposes, and it was first used in 1953.

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Istvan Bara // Getty Images

1958: Microchips

The government first facilitated the mass production of microchips in the aftermath of World War II, while looking for small devices to assist personnel with missile targeting. These days, they’re everywhere, from pet microchips to computer microchips.

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Ralf-Finn Hestoft // Getty Images

1962: LED lights

Although the first recorded instance of semiconductors creating light emissions occurred in 1907, the Air Force helped to create huge breakthroughs in the technology when it gave funding to General Electric employee Nick Holonyak in 1962. He created a red LED light, and in the 1990s, blue LED lights were created.

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ENERGY.GOV // Wikimedia Commons

1963: Vela satellites

The national space program first launched Vela satellites in 1963 to identify possible nuclear detonations. However, they ultimately transformed the space program through cutting-edge data processing and optical sensors.

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The Washington Post // Getty Images

1965: The cell sorter

In the mid-1960s, a physicist at the National Lab created a “cell sorter,” which is able to deflect certain cells so that they can be studied and counted. Today, the tool is used to study the biochemistry of various diseases, notably AIDS and cancer.

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Marshall Astor // Wikimedia Commons

1966: Autonomous robots

From Roombas to the Mars Rover, auto robots play a big role in how modern society functions. They can trace their lineage back to Shakey the Robot, a DARPA-funded creation that is known as one of the seminal breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. The same technology has been applied to the everyday robot technology that consumers know today.

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Keystone-France // Getty Images

1967: 3D seismic imaging

While 3D seismic imaging was first achieved in 1967, it did not become a widely used form of technology until the 1980s. It became much more common within the oil industry because the Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories became involved, providing more computer power and new algorithms to improve 3D imaging.

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Bettmann // Getty Images

1967: PBI

The material PBI, which is extremely resistant to fire and heat, is a regular material used to make safe firefighting gear around the world. However, it can be traced back to NASA, which developed it as a response to the 1967 Apollo I launchpad fire.

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1971: Closed captioning

Closed captioning has played a vital role in making media more accessible to all, but it was first developed when three employees at the National Bureau of Standards, now NIST, first found part of a TV broadcasting spectrum that was large enough to transmit text. Another employee captioned a 1971 TV episode, and from there, national stations began using closed captions in their broadcasts.

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1974: Barcodes

The NSF played a crucial role in developing barcodes through funding since 1974, when engineer George Laurer created the first UPC barcode. Additional computer vision research in the 1990s improved computer vision technology within barcodes exponentially.

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H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock // Getty Images

1976: Computer simulation software

National Lab researchers created the simulation software DYNA 3D in order to safely test and design objects without wasting resources. Common objects made with the software include planes and cars.

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Battenbrook // Wikimedia Commons

1977: Modern hydraulic fracturing

Using work conducted at the National Laboratories, as well as the DOE’s support of early uses, modern hydraulic fracturing became possible in the 1970s. Federal funding was also crucial in making the initially challenging technique a commercially viable option for companies.

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NASA // Wikimedia Commons

1977: Modern Goodyear tires

The current fibrous, strong material that makes up Goodyear’s tires was first made through a partnership with NASA in the 1970s, when researchers were creating material for parachutes to land things on the surface of Mars. This same technology was then used in Goodyear tires.

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Dimitri Bertsekas // Wikimedia Commons

1979: Reverse auctions

After Dimitri Bertsekas came up with the idea of an algorithm to reduce costs and improve efficiencies while distributing assets, the NSF-funded research into how to best utilize this algorithm in real-world contexts. Today, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) use reverse auctions to help save taxpayers money.

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Kim Hansen // Getty Images

1980: Modern wind energy

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first created the modern gas turbine engines that many wind farms now use beginning in the 1980s. The United States now produces 6% of its total electrical energy by harnessing wind power.

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Beeki // Wikimedia Commons

1985: Enriched infant formula

While conducting experiments to determine whether microalgae could function as a form of oxygen and nutrients during long space journeys, NASA scientists found that the algae contained similar omega-3 fatty acids to human breast milk. This finding was commercialized into Formulaid, which is currently added to 90% of baby formulas in the country.

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1986: The hepatitis B vaccine

The first American hepatitis B vaccines were licensed in 1986, after being researched and developed with funding from the NIH. The vaccine has prevented millions of Americans from contracting the preventable liver infection.

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Whispyhistory // Wikimedia Commons

1987: The Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine

The NIH also helped fund the creation of the first Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine, which was licensed in late 1987. The vaccine now helps to protect citizens from Hib, a bacterium that can cause severe infections, particularly in young children.

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picture alliance // Getty Images

1987: Lactose-free milk

Given how common lactose-free dairy products are today, it can be difficult to believe that they have only been around since the 1980s. Virginia Harris Holsinger figured out a way to break down lactose in milk while working for the USDA Agricultural Research Service. As such, she has since helped many lactose-intolerant people consume dairy.

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Science & Society Picture Library // Getty Images

1987: Zidovudine (AZT)

In the late 1980s, the first antiretroviral drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat HIV/AIDS patients. The creation of this drug was supported by the NIH and drastically reduced deaths from the AIDS epidemic.

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Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. // Wikimedia Commons

1988: The Human Genome Project

This initiative has led to breakthroughs in genomics research from the years 1988 to 2012, and was first introduced by the DOE and the NIH. Federal grants of more than $3 billion were given to genome centers, which was sparked by breakthroughs like California Institute of Technology creating the first automated DNA sequence machines.

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The Washington Post // Getty Images

1990: Genetic tracing services

One of the main appeals of DNA services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com is the ability to determine whether you have predispositions to certain conditions and illnesses. Co-funded by the DOE and the NIH, the science behind these companies began from 1990 to 2003 when the Human Genome Project researchers used technology to identify the genetic causes behind diseases.

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Fumquat // Wikimedia Commons

1992: Smartphones

In the early 1990s, while working on mini cameras for spacecraft, NASA developed the image sensors that made smartphones, as well as webcams and digital single-lens reflex cameras, possible today. Then, University of Delaware researchers made touch screens using CIA and NSF funding, ultimately resulting in the refined phone technologies users have today.

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UniversalImagesGroup // Getty Images

1993: GPS

In the 1970s, the Defense Department began working on creating a comprehensive satellite navigation system for national defense and scientific purposes. By 1993, a fully functional, 24-satellite system was primed to grow into the commercial GPS services that civilians also use today.

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Department of Defense // Wikimedia Commons

1994: The Clementine spacecraft

National Lab scientists created the Clementine spacecraft, which was able to deliver nearly 2 million digital images of the moon to NASA. In early 1994, Clementine entered the moon’s orbit and fully mapped its surface.


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Whispyhistory // Wikimedia Commons

1995: The hepatitis A vaccine

The hepatitis A vaccine, which prevents serious liver disease, was developed with funding from the NIH. The first vaccine was licensed in 1995, with millions of doses distributed since.

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FastLizard4 // Wikimedia Commons

1995: The internet

Starting in 1973, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started experimenting with how to link computers, which led to the ARPANET network’s creation in 1977. By the 1980s, the NSF took over most internet-related funding, and when it allowed commercial access to its online network, the internet became available to the public.

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Kenneth C. Zirkel // Wikimedia Commons

1995: Student-centered active learning

SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs) was first modeled at North Carolina State University, with funding from the Department of Education, the NSF, and more. It incorporates more hands-on learning approaches to physics and engineering, and it is now used at more than 50 universities.

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Konrad Jacobs/Erlangen // Wikimedia Commons

1996: The fast multipole method

This algorithm is able to solve equations faster and with less computing power than many other methods, and is useful for computing planes’ radar signatures. It was brought about when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave grants to mathematicians Vladimir Rokhlin and Leslie Greengard to solve the military’s inability to identify plane signatures.

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WillisPThomas // Wikimedia Commons

1996: Lead-free solder

During the late 1990s, scientists at the National Lab created a lead-free alloy of tin-silver-copper, which helped get rid of hazardous lead-based solders and improve the environment. Today, more than 60 companies have licensed the product for use all over the world.

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United States Department of Energy // Wikimedia Commons

1997: The reactor excursion and leak analysis program

Scientists at the National Lab initially developed the program, which models nuclear reactor core and coolant behavior. It was officially released in 1997, and is now used to do things like model fossil fuel power plants and jet aircraft engines.

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Justin Sullivan // Getty Images

1998: Google

Although this invention was somewhat inadvertent, the NSF funded the Digital Library Initiative to index websites in the early days of the Internet. The NSF and CIA went on to fund Stanford graduates Sergey Brin, who received an NSF student fellowship, and Larry Page’s research to make an algorithm that ranks web pages by importance. By 1998, this became Google.

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Matthew Yohe // Wikimedia Commons

1998: Touch screens

With help from NSF fellowships and grants, researchers at the University of Delaware created what would become the touch screens people now use on tablets and smartphones. Doctoral student Wayne Westerman created the company FingerWorks, which was later purchased by Apple for their own devices.

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NurPhoto // Getty Images

2004: The kidney matching program

Beginning in the early 1980s, Alan Roth and a small team of economists began developing new algorithms in order to match those in need of kidney transplants with viable donors. Thanks to support from the NSF, they founded the New England Program for Kidney Exchange and vastly increased the number of kidney transplants across the country with their model.

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Lapponica // Wikimedia Commons

2004: Self-driving cars

The first self-driving cars were used in 2004, after Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency director Anthony Tether offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could create a driverless car that could navigate a 142-mile course. This continued the next year, and while self-driving cars aren’t yet totally approved, Teslas now come with autopilot and self-driving capability software.

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Handout // Getty Images

2006: The HPV vaccine

The NIH played a key role in developing the HPV vaccine, which was first licensed in 2006. It helps to prevent the common diseases spread through sex, which can cause six types of cancer, as well as genital warts.

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Boston Globe // Getty Images

2006: Modern upper-limb prosthetics

As more and more Americans began to need prosthetics in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began to invest more heavily in modernizing advanced prosthetics. It also launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006, building on the work of an artificial upper limb—known as the Boston Arm—that uses electrical brain signals.

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Boston Globe // Getty Images

2007: Modern lower-limb prosthetics

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ prosthetics research also led to the creation of an ankle and foot that uses robotics to mimic human motion. This led to similar innovations like iWalk and BiOM being licensed by 2007.

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Svobodin Anton // Shutterstock

2008: Weather apps

The same NSF-funded research that made the weather-predicting Doppler radar possible also translated that technology into easy-to-use mobile weather apps. Weather has been a preinstalled app on Apple products since 2008.

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2009: Hybrid corn

In the 20th century, the national corn yield increased 50%–60% due to increased breeding, and has only grown due to genetic corn modification. Huge advances have been made since the entire corn genome was sequenced in 2009, because of grants from the NSF, USDA, and DOE.

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2010: Tesla cars

Elon Musk’s company has received an estimated $4.9 billion in government subsidies, aiding Tesla Motors Inc.’s production of cutting-edge automobile technology. Tesla first received a federal loan from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program in 2010, just a year after the 2009 financial crisis.

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Kevork Djansezian // Getty Images

2011: Siri

Digital voice assistants like Siri have become increasingly common in recent years, as they easily respond to questions posed to electronic devices. They were partially brought about thanks to the government—for instance, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency gave $22 million to SRI in the 2000s so that it could develop a cognitive assistant that learns and organizes (CALO). That CALO technology became an essential blueprint for the Siri startup in 2007, which was picked up by Apple and debuted in 2011.

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Evan-Amos // Wikimedia Commons

2012: The Wii

Although the government obviously isn’t the direct creator of the Wii, it was made possible through the military’s development of accelerometers that monitor changes in speed. The devices are used to detect movement within Wii machines’ hand-held controllers, in order to simulate movement.

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2017: The Oleo sponge

In 2017, scientists at the National Lab created a sponge that is able to absorb 90 times its weight in oil from water using a groundbreaking nano technique. The Oleo sponge was created in response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, and aims to aid oil spill cleanup.

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NurPhoto // Getty Images

2020: The Moderna coronavirus vaccine

Moderna, one of the coronavirus vaccines authorized for emergency use by the FDA, was created in collaboration with the government initiative Operation Warp Speed. As of April 2, 2021, the company had plans to produce 1 billion doses of safe vaccines in 2021.

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