The process of invention is fraught with risk and imagination. It requires a person who can see a problem and solve it, but who can also intuit problems people haven’t even thought of yet. During the 20th Century, especially after the Second World War, Latin America was home to a number of inventors who would go on to create products that many use every day. Here are five world-changing inventions you probably didn’t realize were created in Latin America.
The Birth Control Pill
In 1951, a team of three men who worked for Syntex Corporation in Mexico City – George Rosenkranz, Carl Djerassi and Luis Miramontes – co-created the first viable oral form of contraceptive. The pill, as it would become more popularly known, would go on to make the sexual revolution of the 1960s possible (kind of ironic considering how staunchly Catholic the nation where it was first invented was). The three men were lauded in Mexico for their work, and Miramontes went on to have awards named after him as well as becoming a hero in Mexico. Mexico thought so highly of Miramontes along with Djerassi and Rosenkranz, that their creation is considered the most important Mexican contribution to science in the 20th century.
TV is one of the greatest things ever invented. You get a box that magically brings the world to your living room. Sure, you have to pay to see stuff and the ascendance of the internet has made the future of TV a murky proposition, but we digress. In 1942, while the Americans, Russians and Germans were preoccupied with WWII, a young Mexican man named Guillermo González Camarena filed a patent for one of the first color televisions. He was so ahead of the curve, it took the rest of the world two more decades before color television was the norm.
The Mondragón Rifle
Before the introduction of machine guns, an officer in the Mexican Army named Manuel Mondragón came up with a design for a rifle that could reload a new bullet without requiring the shooter to manually eject the spent cartridge. The semi-automatic rifle became the first to be officially adopted by a national military – it was utilized by German aviators in aerial combat during World War I, and it was also used in the Mexican Revolution (though it wasn’t widely adopted yet).
The rifle was a hint of what was to come in warfare, as automatic weapons irrevocably changed combat. Fast forward to the present, and photos of Mexican cartel members and soldiers show them armed with the spiritual grandchildren of the Mondragón; AK-47s, M-16s and the like. As for Manuel Mondragón; he was exiled during the revolution due to his conservatism and spent his remaining days in Spain. His rifle is still used to this day as the ceremonial rifle of the Mexican military.
The Ballpoint Pen
You use them all the time for writing down (and forgetting) WiFi passwords and usernames. Some come nice and thick with rubber grips while others are too thin and your fingers end up with calluses. The ballpoint pen is truly a gift of Prometheus-like proportions. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the dominant writing utensil was the fountain pen. It looked classy and the ink was nice and expressive. But it leaked; it flowed erratically and it couldn’t write on many surfaces. Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro aimed to create a better version, and in 1938 he designed a pen that used a fast drying oil-based ink and a tungsten ball to let the ink roll smoothly onto paper. Shortly afterward, he fled his native Hungary (where anti-Jewish laws had become active), and emigrated to Argentina, where he was able to file a patent for his invention, set up a company and refine his design. By the late 40s, he was the country’s leading producer of ball-point pens, called Biromes, and was selling his invention in Europe.
The Artificial Heart
Back in the 1950s, heart surgery was a risky proposition and the science behind heart transplants was still in its infancy. Finding a synthetic replacement for the heart that could be used to replace a failed heart (or as a stop gap between transplants) was a holy grail of cardiac medicine. So it was a pretty huge deal when an Argentine doctor named Domingo Liotta created the first total artificial heart to be successfully transplanted into a human being in 1969. Liotta eventually wrote an autobiography that talks at length about his experiences with his invention and his creation is now displayed at the Smithsonian Museum.