Cover art for podcast American Innovations

American Innovations

104 EpisodesProduced by WonderyWebsite

DNA science. Artificial intelligence. Smartphones and 3D printers. Science and technology have transformed the world we live in. But how did we get here? It wasn’t by accident. Well, sometimes it was. It was also the result of hard work, teamwork, and competition. And incredibly surprising moments.H… read more

104 Episodes | 2018 - 2020

Introducing American Innovations

April 26th, 2018

2:08

The leaps of mankind, as they happened.

Premieres May 10.


Listen ad free with Wondery+. Join Wondery+ for exclusives, binges, early access, and ad free listening. Available in the Wondery App.

Where Are Past Seasons?

May 10th, 2018

0:28

Hey American Innovations listeners! You might be wondering what happened to some of our older seasons. We’ve moved them to our new premium service, …

Thinking Machines| Artificial Intelligence | 1

August 30th, 2018

40:27

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. And it’s about to get much more powerful: machines that can reason, create, …

Thinking Machines| How Do You Make a Computer Blink | 2

September 6th, 2018

39:07

With six different kinds of pieces, 64 squares to move in, and billions of possible combinations of moves, chess is a good test for a computer. The number of distinct 40-move games is far greater than the number of …

Thinking Machines | Siri-ous Business | 3

September 13th, 2018

38:09

The development of smartphone Artificial Intelligence from early government research funding and the first experimental robot in Silicon Valley to the rise of the personal assistant known as Siri.


American Innovations is …

Thinking Machines | I Learn Therefore I Am | 4

September 20th, 2018

39:44

A leap in the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence causes concern about the dangers ahead.  

Written by Tom Simonite

American Innovations is presented by ZipRecruiter.

Try it for free at ZipRecruiter.com/AI

Thinking Machines | Passing For Human | 5

September 27th, 2018

44:22

Can a computer pass for human? And more importantly, can a computer beat a human at Jeopardy? It’s all fun and games until we start putting life-changing decisions in the hands of machines.

Written by Steven Johnson

Thinking Machines | Garry Kasparov | 6

October 4th, 2018

47:19

An interview with the Grandmaster himself: Garry Kasparov. In 1985, he earned international fame when he became the youngest world chess champion at …

Coca-Cola: The Cocaine Clinician | 1

February 21st, 2019

43:00

In the wake of the Civil War, Atlanta emerged as both the cultural capital of the New South, and the epicenter of its snake oil trade. A …

Coca-Cola: The Perfect Package | 2

February 28th, 2019

42:10

Things are really picking up for Coca-Cola, thanks to its industrious new—and most importantly, sober—owner, Asa Candler. Over the past year, …

XX Factor | The Woman Who Put Man on the Moon | 1

March 14th, 2019

40:33

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are preparing to land on the Moon. The whole world is watching live on television. But something is very …

XX Factor | Madam C.J. Walker | 2

March 21st, 2019

39:59

The first self-made female African American millionaire is how she’s known. But Madam C.J. Walker’s story is much more than a rags to riches tale of …

XX Factor | Margaret Knight | 3

March 28th, 2019

46:26

A machine to mass produce paper bags. Seems unremarkable today, but in the 1800s, it was cutting edge. The technology would change everyday life, and …

XX Factor | Hedy Lamarr | 4

April 4th, 2019

46:51

Glamour. Hollywood. Drama. Although she was known as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Actress Hedy Lamarr’s greatest life work was far from …

Jaron Lanier Wants You to Delete Social Media | 5

April 11th, 2019

43:15

Twitter, Facebook, Youtube. The past year has brought a backlash against these companies and others over data privacy and their treatment of speech. Tech visionary and critic Jaron Lanier discusses his take on social …

Airplane | The Flight of the June Bug | 1

April 18th, 2019

44:15

Think for a moment about some of the pioneering developments from the earliest days of American aviation: The first pilot’s licence; the first flight …

Airplane | Wrights and Wrongs | 2

April 25th, 2019

41:17

Glenn Curtiss may have mastered the technical aspects of the airplane, but in September of 1909, Curtiss found himself painfully ill-equipped to …

Airplane | Rewriting Aviation History | 3

May 2nd, 2019

40:55

In 1913, the young aviation industry was in trouble. The Wright brothers’ broad proprietary claim on airplane technology—and their willingness to sue …

Star Wars' Cinema Technology | 6842 Valjean Ave | 1

May 16th, 2019

43:15

When STAR WARS debuted in May 1977, it gave rise to a pop-cultural phenomenon unlike any the world had ever seen. The movie was so singular and …

Star Wars' Cinema Technology | The Saga Continues | 2

May 23rd, 2019

43:15

With the success of STAR WARS, George Lucas finally had the independence and power to make movies exactly the way he wanted to make them—which was critical, because the sequels he planned were going to be even bigger …

Star Wars' Cinema Technology | The Audience is Listening | 3

May 30th, 2019

40:45

By 1975, George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted Star Wars to look like, but what it would sound like was another story altogether. Lucas was tired …

Molly Wood: In A Changing Climate, How Can Tech Help Us Survive? | 4

June 6th, 2019

45:50

Molly Wood has spent two decades covering the tech industry. As the host of “Marketplace Tech,” she demystifies the digital economy and how the world …

The Birth Control Pill | But Can It Be Done? | 1

June 13th, 2019

40:56

When Margaret Sanger opened her birth control clinic in 1916, she knew she was breaking the law. Distributing contraceptives, or even literature …

The Birth Control Pill | A Matter of Money | 2

June 20th, 2019

41:29

In 1951, Dr. Gregory Pincus was on the verge of a breakthrough. He had successfully halted ovulation in rabbits and mice; now the project was finally …

The Birth Control Pill | Paradise and the Pill | 3

June 27th, 2019

41:13

Since its launch, the birth control project had faced one obstacle after another. And over the year and a half that they’d been working, they had …

Biologist Timothy Mousseau Can’t Stop Going Back To Chernobyl | 4

July 4th, 2019

26:53

Radioactive bugs, birds, and dogs: these are a few of biologist Timothy Mousseau’s favorite things. Though the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and …

Innovation Fails: DeLorean | Driven to Succeed | 1

July 25th, 2019

40:24

Normally on American Innovations, we look at the history of the science and technology that transformed the world we live in. These stories teach us …

Innovation Fails: DeLorean | Shifting Gears | 2

August 1st, 2019

42:42

The DeLorean was going to change the automotive industry. Designed to be fast, fuel-efficient, durable and affordable, it was going to be the first …

Author Jason Torchinsky Talks Our Autonomous Future | 3

August 8th, 2019

33:30

The first mass rollout of robots into mainstream life won’t be humanoid machines designed to clean our homes or mow our lawns. It will be our cars. …

The Heimlich Maneuver | 1

August 15th, 2019

43:45

In the 1960s, choking was a national epidemic. In the United States alone, close to 4,000 people were dying from choking every year.  Lobster, ham, …

Corn Flakes | The Brothers of Battle Creek | 1

August 22nd, 2019

40:36

For the first 150 years of American history, American citizens were plagued by gastrointestinal issues. Diarrhea, gastritis and dysentery were pretty much a way of life. Indigestion was such an immense problem, the poet …

Corn Flakes | Crunch Time | 2

August 29th, 2019

40:27

After missing the chance to buy the rights to Shredded Wheat, the Kellogg brothers are on a quest to make toasted wheat flakes the leader of the …

Corn Flakes | Kellogg vs Kellogg | 3

September 5th, 2019

39:21

Now that Will has officially left the San, it would seem his days of servitude and humiliation are finally over. But John has no intention of leaving …

Sex, Cereal, and Nut Milks - The Complicated Legacy of the Kelloggs | 4

September 12th, 2019

29:35

We conclude our series on Corn Flakes with Howard Markel author of "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek." Markel joins us to talk about how he discovered the Kellogg's story and how their innovations …

Skylab: NASA’s Best-Kept Secret| Apollo’s Leftovers | 1

September 26th, 2019

39:02

Fifty years ago, America’s space program achieved its greatest triumph, when Apollo Eleven put the first men on the moon.

The Apollo program was a …

Skylab: NASA’s Best-Kept Secret| We Fix Anything | 2

October 3rd, 2019

39:08

Skylab was NASA’s underdog — a cobbled-together  program that lived in the shadow of the Apollo moon landings. But with the last of those moon …

Skylab: NASA’s Best-Kept Secret | Falling Back to Earth | 3

October 10th, 2019

39:41

The resourcefulness of NASA’s engineers and Skylab’s first crew helped save the space station from near disaster. Now, as the station’s second crew …

Electric Chair | War of the Currents | 1

October 17th, 2019

44:52

On August 6, 1890, a prisoner named William Kemmler became the first man executed in the electric chair. It was designed to be a more humane form of execution, but the gruesome scene in the death chamber that day …

Electric Chair | The War Becomes Electric | 2

October 24th, 2019

40:46

After his unceremonious departure from Edison Electric, Nikola Tesla found himself broke and dejected, but more determined than ever to share his …

Electric Chair | A Matter of Light and Death | 3

October 31st, 2019

39:00

In the summer of 1888, just as the electric chair controversy was unfolding, Nikola Tesla moved to Pittsburgh to work for George Westinghouse, …

Google's Quantum Breakthrough

November 14th, 2019

30:18

In October, Google announced in a paper in the journal Nature that it built a chip called "Sycamore" that achieved what is known as "quantum supremacy." It's being hailed as a massive step forward in the world of …

The Modern Ambulance | 1

November 21st, 2019

43:17

Today, if you or someone you know experiences a medical emergency, you dial 9-1-1 and a squad of trained medical professionals arrives at your door.  But just 55 years ago, that was not the case.

Emergency calls were …

Kodak Roll Film: As Convenient as a Pencil | 1

November 28th, 2019

35:48

Today, if we want to take a photo, we unlock our phone, aim, and click.  It can be done on a whim, without a second thought. We document everything from new haircuts to latte art, cute cats to baby’s first smile.  But …

Kodak Roll Film: Kodak Fiends | 2

December 5th, 2019

36:50

George Eastman had made technological breakthroughs and forays into the photography market, but his images still weren’t good enough for professional …

Kodak Roll Film: Brownie Boom | 3

December 12th, 2019

38:37

After George Eastman cut ties with his chief emulsion-maker-turned-saboteur, Henry Reichenbach, the Kodak company started to falter. Some batches of …

The Year in Innovation | 6

January 9th, 2020

42:29

It's a new year and a new decade, and that means a lot of new innovation and tech to look forward to. But, as we wonder what the future has in store, it's important to look back at the past year and what it has taught …

Electronic Television: The Picture Radio | 1

January 16th, 2020

38:57

The invention of the electronic television was uniquely complicated for its time. So complicated, in fact, that the prevailing narrative is that it …

Electronic Television: A Great Depression And The World's Fair | 2

January 23rd, 2020

41:30

While Philo Farnsworth was building gizmos out of a loft in San Francisco, the Radio Corporation of America was already plotting domination of the yet-to-be television industry under the leadership of a man named David …

Electronic Television: The TVs of The Future | 3

January 30th, 2020

27:56

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, television manufacturer LG debuted a TV set that rolls up like a poster. It's a far cry from our …

Valium: Miltown Magic | 1

February 6th, 2020

39:31

Anxiety. It’s something everyone experiences at some point in their lives, but for centuries doctors had no effective way to treat it. They could …

Valium: The House That Leo Built | 2

February 13th, 2020

37:52

With Miltown sweeping the nation, pharmaceutical companies around the country want in on the action and vie to create their own versions. At Hoffman La Roche, a brilliant scientist by the name of Leo Sternbach leads the …

Valium: Mother’s Little Helper | 3

February 20th, 2020

39:58

Within 10 years of Valium’s introduction, people are starting to realize it’s not quite as harmless as they had been led to believe. Patients are …

Organ Transplant: The Kidney Twins | 1

March 5th, 2020

42:50

A century ago, organ transplants were the stuff of science fiction. But a handful of experimental surgeons believed that transplants were not just …

Organ Transplant: A Matter of Life and Death | 2

March 12th, 2020

36:52

By the early 1960s, surgeons have proven that it's possible to transplant kidneys and lungs. Now, with heart disease still the leading cause of death, they've set their sights on performing the first human heart …

Organ Transplant: The Heart Race | 3

March 19th, 2020

44:58

In 1967, an unlikely surgeon performs the first human heart transplant – and shocks the world. As others race to replicate his achievement, one …

Fighting Coronavirus: Bruce Gellin On How COVID-19 Could Change Vaccine Development | 1

March 26th, 2020

25:37

As the first in a series on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Johnson speaks with Dr. Bruce Gellin, president of Global Immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington D.C.. Dr. Gellin is also a former …

Fighting Coronavirus: How Can We Protect City Life? | 2

March 31st, 2020

26:05

When public health is threatened on a mass scale, we have a long history of working together to take on the challenge. On this new weekly series, …

Dynamite: The Controlled Explosion | 1

April 2nd, 2020

34:14

In 1846, an Italian chemist discovered the volatile compound nitroglycerine, the first major breakthrough in creating man-made explosions since the …

Fighting Coronavirus: When Will the Lockdown End? | 3

April 7th, 2020

23:45

Reading the forecast models that track and predict the spread of the coronavirus can feel like a glimpse into the future. And epidemiologists – the …

Dynamite: The Loneliest Millionaire | 2

April 9th, 2020

32:43

Alfred Nobel had solved the critical problem of detonating nitroglycerine reliably, but his efforts to turn his new "blasting oil" into a successful …

Fighting Coronavirus: How Can Data Save Lives? | 4

April 14th, 2020

28:23

Where are new cases being detected? How many beds are available in local hospitals? What’s the growth rate of ICU admissions? These are some of the most urgent questions in the world right now, and they’re being …

Dynamite: The Merchant of Death is Dead | 3

April 16th, 2020

35:46

How did Alfred Nobel, the “Merchant of Death,” go from inventing dynamite to establishing the Nobel Peace Prize? The answer lies in a personal ad, a poorly vetted obituary, and a surprising new use for nitroglycerine.



Fighting Coronavirus: Are Our Kids Alright? | 5

April 21st, 2020

30:30

Let’s face it: we’re worried about our kids. How can we protect their mental health? Should the normal rules around screen time still apply? What …

Dynamite: Audrey Kurth Cronin on New Technology and Terrorism | 4

April 23rd, 2020

31:36

Alfred Nobel worked on dynamite in distinctly unglamorous labs, but his ambitions were as grand as his labs were small. He envisioned dynamite transforming cityscapes and connecting rail lines across Europe. When Alfred …

Fighting Coronavirus: Pandemic DIY | 6

April 28th, 2020

25:27

When health care workers began running out of protective equipment, makers around the world powered up their 3D printers and got to work. This week, Steven talks to journalist Clive Thompson about the maker movement, an …

Fighting Coronavirus: Is Social Distancing Enough? | 7

May 5th, 2020

24:16

If we really want to reopen our economy, we need to do more than just flatten the curve. In the words of Dr. Jim Kim, the former president of the World Bank, we need to “start coming down the mountain.” And to do that, …

Chewing Gum: Snapping and Stretching | 1

May 7th, 2020

33:17

It’s the mid-1800s and in Maine, John Bacon Curtis is back from clearing the spruce forests with a crazy idea. He’s going to sell ready-to-chew gum.

Fighting Coronavirus | We’re More United Than You Think | 8

May 12th, 2020

22:44

Communication and cooperation across our society are as important as they’ve ever been. This week, Steven talks with Andy Slavitt, the former Medicare and Medicaid chief, who has emerged as one of the most effective …

Chewing Gum | The Champion of Chewers | 2

May 14th, 2020

41:33

It’s the early 1890s and thanks to the adoption of chicle, chewing gum is bigger than ever. But it’s still a niche American habit. Men still shun it in favor of tobacco, and women who chew it in public are frowned upon. 

Fighting Coronavirus | Will We Remember 2020 A Century From Now? | 9

May 19th, 2020

23:24

While the U.S. has countless WWI memorials, it has almost none dedicated to the 1918 flu pandemic – even though the pandemic claimed six times as many American lives.

On this episode, Steven talks to historian Nancy …

Enemy of All Mankind | A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt | 1

May 21st, 2020

36:19

On September 11th, 1695, two ships confronted each other in the middle of the Indian Ocean: one an enormous treasure ship owned by the Grand Mughal of India, and the other a much smaller British pirate ship led by Henry …

Fighting Coronavirus | Stopping the Spread of Bad Information | 10

May 26th, 2020

23:01

According to the World Health Organization, we’re not just in the midst of a pandemic. We’re living through an “infodemic,” where misinformation is more readily available than facts.

On this episode, Steven talks to Joan …

Ferris Wheel | Wheel in the Sky | 1

May 28th, 2020

41:46

The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris dazzles attendees with the Eiffel Tower. So, when plans begin for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the mandate is clear: beat the Tower. 

America’s architects and engineers compete to win …

Fighting Coronavirus | Can Your Smartwatch Detect Covid-19? | 11

June 3rd, 2020

22:52

These days, watches don’t just tell time. Smartwatches like Apple Watch and Fitbit measure your heart rate, count your steps, and track your sleep …

Ferris Wheel | Scott A. Lukas and the History of Theme Parks | 2

June 4th, 2020

29:20

George Ferris aspired to build a structure for the 1893 World's Fair that could rival Paris's Eiffel Tower. And when the Ferris wheel debuted, …

Fighting Coronavirus | Why Covid-19 Disproportionately Kills Black Americans | 12

June 9th, 2020

27:36

There’s a saying in public health circles: “When white America sneezes, black America gets pneumonia.” When the coronavirus hit, health care experts …

Encore: The Polio Vaccine | Marching Toward A Cure | 1

June 11th, 2020

34:35

The virus spread invisibly and without warning. Person to person. Through contaminated food, shared possessions, and unwashed hands.

Mid-century …

Fighting Coronavirus | Can We Ditch the Office Forever? | 13

June 16th, 2020

26:25

Most CEOs hated the idea of employees working from home. But when the coronavirus hit, they didn’t have a choice. They sent their white-collar …

Encore: The Polio Vaccine | Can You Patent The Sun? | 2

June 18th, 2020

44:33

Pressure mounts to release a vaccine for polio, but a rushed vaccine could have disastrous results. After all, vaccines contain benign samples of the …

Fighting Coronavirus | Forest Fires, Memes, & Covid-19 | 14

June 23rd, 2020

27:37

Forest fires. Ant colonies. Internet memes.

On the surface, they have nothing in common. But, according to network scientist Samuel Scarpino, they’re …

Encore: The Polio Vaccine | The Fight Goes On | 3

June 25th, 2020

39:33

In 1955, the world received its first viable polio vaccine, courtesy of Jonas Salk. He was hailed as a hero until kids started to fall sick with …

Fighting Coronavirus | Inside the NBA Bubble | 15

June 30th, 2020

25:41

Back in March, the NBA pressed pause on its 2019-20 season. Now, the league wants to pick up where it left off – but with Covid-19 rates on the rise, it’s not going to be easy.

This week, Kavitha Davidson, host of The …

Radar | Welcome to Tuxedo Park | 1

July 2nd, 2020

34:05

What technology won WWII? Most people would say the atomic bomb, but the real answer is radar.

As a small island country, vulnerable to aerial …

Fighting Coronavirus | How We Can Still Win | 16

July 7th, 2020

26:03

When National Geographic science editor Nsikan Akpan began researching his latest article on the coronavirus, he asked every scientist he talked to the same question: Has the U.S. already lost? Every scientist said no – …

Radar | Mr. Bowen Goes to Washington | 2

July 9th, 2020

38:35

As World War II rages on, American and English scientists race to develop a microwave radar system. But both sets of scientists have something the other team needs to cross the finish line. 



Radar | The Rad Lab | 3

July 16th, 2020

36:27

As German bombers raze England’s cities, American scientists race to build the world’s first air-to-air radar system. But building the system is only half the challenge. If the scientists succeed, they’ll also have to …

Radar | The Superpowers of Modern Radar | 4

July 23rd, 2020

29:56

Since World War II, scientists have continued to use radar to explore what we can’t see or hear ourselves. And their uses have become increasingly …

Fighting Coronavirus | Back to School | 17

July 28th, 2020

18:47

Back-to-school season is here, but students across the country aren’t going anywhere. Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s education correspondent, returns to the …

Video Games | Electric Dreams | 1

July 30th, 2020

38:56

Call of Duty, Fortnite, Animal Crossing.... The video game industry generates billions of dollars each year. But not so long ago, video games were …

Video Games | Ping-Pong | 2

August 6th, 2020

39:43

Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space was the world's first commercial video game, but it failed to win over the masses. Now Bushnell’s plotting his …

Video Games | Home Invasion | 3

August 13th, 2020

43:12

It's 1975 and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell is setting his sights on the next frontier in video games: the home.

But convincing people to bring …

Fighting Coronavirus | Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Vaccines (But Were Afraid to Ask) | 18

August 18th, 2020

22:10

The coronavirus has put our lives on pause, but it’s kicked the science behind vaccines into hyperdrive. Science writer Carl Zimmer walks Steven through some of the radical new approaches to making vaccines – and gives …

Video Games | Game Designer Ian Bogost on the Past and Future of Gaming | 4

August 20th, 2020

38:20

The video game industry has certainly matured over the years. But does it still have the sense of open-ended innovation that it did in the early …

Keeping Cool | A Chilly Reception | 1

August 27th, 2020

38:53

Muggy. Sticky. Miserable. 

For eons, that’s just what summer was. In fact, when air conditioning first became available, few people took advantage of it. Wasn’t summer supposed to be uncomfortable? 

This is the story of …

Keeping Cool | It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity | 2

September 3rd, 2020

40:36

Summer blockbusters. Phoenix, Arizona. President Ronald Reagan. What do all these things have in common? They might never have happened if not for AC.

On this episode, AC finally hits the big time – and changes America …

Fighting Coronavirus | Larry Brilliant on Why We Need a Global Covid Response | 19

September 8th, 2020

26:39

There are few people who have thought more about pandemics than epidemiologist Larry Brilliant. He worked with the World Health Organization to …

Keeping Cool | The Air Conditioning Trap | 3

September 10th, 2020

33:03

As the Earth heats up, air conditioning is quickly shifting from a luxury to a necessity. But our reliance on ACs is also speeding up the pace of global warming. It’s the “air conditioning trap.” On this episode, Steven …

Encore: Thinking Machines | Artificial Intelligence | 1

September 17th, 2020

40:53

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. And it’s about to get much more powerful: machines that can reason, create, …

Encore: Thinking Machines | How Do You Make A Computer Blink? | 2

September 24th, 2020

38:22

With six different kinds of pieces, 64 squares to move in, and billions of possible combinations of moves, chess is a good test for a computer. The number of distinct 40-move games is far greater than the number of …

Encore: Thinking Machines | Siri-ous Business | 3

October 1st, 2020

37:04

The development of smartphone Artificial Intelligence from early government research funding and the first experimental robot in Silicon Valley to the rise of the personal assistant known as Siri.

Note: This episode …

Wondery presents Kamala: Next In Line

October 5th, 2020

6:19

Subscribe today: http://wondery.fm/KamalaNextInLine

If she wins in November, Kamala Harris would become Vice President after one of the most …

Encore: Thinking Machines | I Learn, Therefore I Am | 4

October 8th, 2020

38:09

A leap in the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence causes concern about the dangers ahead.  

Note: This episode originally aired in September 2018.  

Support us by supporting our sponsors!

Fundrise - Get …

Encore: Thinking Machines | Passing For Human | 5

October 15th, 2020

41:12

Can a computer pass for human? And more importantly, can a computer beat a human at Jeopardy? It’s all fun and games until we start putting life-changing decisions in the hands of machines.

Note: This episode originally …

The Fight Against AIDS | The Gay Plague | 1

October 22nd, 2020

42:18

In the early 1980s, a mysterious new disease spread like wildfire through the gay communities of major U.S. cities. Before it even had a name, AIDS had already killed over half its victims. Public response was hampered …

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