Social Innovation

11 inventions you probably didn't know came from Latin America

A bulb hangs inside a restaurant in Madrid.

What do colour television, artificial hearts and contraceptive pills have in common' Image: REUTERS/Andrea Comas

José Santiago
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Latin America has produced some of the most ingenious inventions of our lifetime.

And yet, according to a 2013 report by the OECD, the future of innovation in the Latin America region is in danger due to low levels of investment and research.

Research and development in Latin America is sluggish. Contrary to other regions, such as the United States, where knowledge-intensive sectors represent 60% of manufacturing value and experience rapid growth, in Latin America natural resource and labour-intensive sectors account for the majority of manufacturing value.

Today, however, things are starting to look up: innovative start-ups are gaining momentum, initiatives are addressing the innovation gap (such as the World Economic Forum's Competitiveness Lab) and creative entrepreneurs are leading the way on technologies that have a social impact.

With the promise of a bright future for innovation in Latin America, let's take a look at some of the region's greatest past inventions:

1. The colour TV. Born in Guadalajara Mexico, Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena was an electrical engineer credited with the invention of a colour-wheel type of television. His was the first colour TV patented in the US and Mexico, and is still used by NASA today.

Image: CC/Shal Farley

2. Neonatal artificial bubble. Born in Perú, Claudio Castillón Lévano invented the "neonatal artificial bubble", designed to improve the intensive medical care of high-risk newborns.

3. The contraceptive pill. Mexican chemist Luis E. Miramontes co-invented the first oral contraceptive pill in 1956.


4. The electric brake. Victor Ochoa was a Mexican inventor and revolutionary who patented the electric brake in 1907. It uses magnetic attraction to make it easier for trains to slow down. Ochoa is also known for inventing the ochoaplane, an adjustable wrench, and a pen and pencil clip, among other inventions.

5. Photography. Hércules Florence, a French-Brazilian inventor, is considered one of the pioneers of photography, developing a photograph some three years before Louis Daguerre.

Diploma da Maçonaria, first official image recorded by Hércules Florence in 1832 Image: Hércules Florence

6. The Mondragón rifle. Manuel Mondragón was an officer in the Mexican Army who designed a gun capable of reloading a new bullet without the shooter having to manually eject the spent cartridge. It was used during World War I and the in the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Mondragón rifle is believed to be the world's first self-loading rifle Image: Creative Commons/Antique Military Rifles

7. The ballpoint pen. László József Biró, Argentinian by naturalization and Hungarian by birth, was a journalist and inventor. He designed a pen with oil-based ink and a tungsten ball that allowed the ink to roll smoothly on to paper.

 Pens and notebooks in Google's colours are prepared for the media
Image: REUTERS/Peter Power

8. The artificial heart. Dr Domingo Liotta was born in Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants. In 1969, he created the first artificial heart to be successfully transplanted into a human being. His creation is on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

The original prototype of the Liotta-Cooley heart, at the Smithsonian National Museum Image: NMAH Exhibits

9. Captcha codes. The annoying online access code format used to prevent spam was invented by Guatemala-born doctor Luis Von Ahn.

Image: Creative Commons/CAPTCHA Insanity

10. The stent. Argentine vascular radiologist Julio C. Palmaz invented the balloon expandable stent used to treat cardiovascular disease. In 2006 he was immortalized in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Image: Frank C. Müllervia/Wikimedia Commons

11. Bandage for administering drugs. Uruguayan Alejandro Zaffaroni has been granted more than 45 patents to date, including a bandage for administering drugs through the skin.

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