A place that never ceases to surprise, Florida is the birthplace of a few important inventions—some of which we use every day.
We’re all well aware that Florida is a cultural melting pot containing some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and boasting often covetous weather, but did you know it’s home to some of the world’s brightest thinkers, too? From the personal computer to air conditioning, some of the most important inventions of modern history have been birthed on Floridian soil. Learn the true histories behind a handful of Florida’s most important inventions:
The IBM Personal Computer
A little more than 40 years ago, global technology company International Business Machines (IBM) introduced the world to the IBM 5100 Personal Computer (PC), a machine that continues to set the standard for personal computers today with its Microsoft operating system, Intel processor, and open architecture. This groundbreaking invention was not developed in Silicon Valley as many might think. A small team of engineers created the IBM 5100 Portable Computer in Boca Raton, Florida—all within in the span of one year.
This innovative undertaking, which came to be known as “Project Chess,” was spearheaded by Bill Lowe, a lab director at the Boca Raton site who gathered a team of developers, programmers, and manufacturers to work around the clock to produce this publicly accessible product. In 1981, the brand-new IBM PC sold for $1,565—a far cry from the million-dollar price tags its predecessors wore.
Today, the laboratories that witnessed the invention of the IBM PC continue to inspire new generations of Floridian inventors as part of the Boca Raton Innovation Campus, a 1.7 million-square-foot office park home to more than three dozen national and international companies and organizations.
The Endangered Species Act
Can you imagine life in Florida without the American alligators, sea turtles, and manatees who make the Sunshine State the unique, vibrant ecosystem it is today? If it weren’t for one Florida man, Nathaniel Reed, these endangered and threatened species may have disappeared into extinction decades ago.
While serving as the White House’s assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife, and national parks, Reed co-wrote the Endangered Species Act, which protects and conserves wildlife, fish, and plants by eliminating threats to their survival. Only four years after Congress approved the act in 1973, this piece of legislation proved immeasurably important: In 1977, the alligator was removed from the endangered species list, as the reptile was no longer facing the threat of extinction.
Reed, who died in 2018, was a lifelong conservationist inspired to save Florida’s wildlife and wild spaces after a childhood spent in part on Jupiter Island, Florida—a piece of land bought and developed by his wealthy parents in the 1930s as a winter travel destination. Here, he fished in the Indian River from his own rowboat starting at the tender age of 6 and scoured the island in search of glimpses of butterflies and birds. Reed went on to become a founder of the Everglades Foundation, which remains an authoritative voice in the work to restore and protect the Florida Everglades.
The Saffir-Simpson Scale
If you’ve lived in Florida for any length of time, you’ve surely heard people say things like, “We’re not worried—it’s only a Cat 1” or “This Cat 4 isn’t messing around,” but did you know the scale used to measure hurricane intensity was invented in Florida? The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is named for its two inventors: structural engineer Herbert Saffir and Robert Simpson, the first director of the National Hurricane Research Project, which was based in what’s now Palm Beach International Airport.
After serving in World War II, Saffir moved to Florida to become a county engineer, and he made a name for himself as an expert in codifying how hurricane-force winds impact buildings. The United Nations commissioned Saffir to create a hurricane intensity scale in 1969, and he later brought his findings to Simpson and the National Hurricane Research Project, who oversaw the use of the scale in weather forecasts and emergency communications.
Today, the Saffir-Simpson scale is the universally used method of communicating a hurricane’s potential impact to the public in the United States, ranking hurricanes from 1 to 5 based on their maximum sustained wind speed. With all due respect to its Floridian inventors, the scale is likely in need of an update—scientists have noted that the Saffir-Simpson scale does not take into account factors like tornadoes, flooding and storm surge, potentially deadly hazards associated with hurricanes and tropical storms.
If not for the creativity and innovation of one Florida physician and scientist, we might be spending our Floridian summers (as well as our springs and falls, if we’re being honest) uncomfortably hot and sweaty. In 1851, Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, Florida, was granted the first US patent for mechanical refrigeration.
Often referred to as the “father of air conditioning and refrigeration,” Gorrie was inspired to design and build an air-cooling machine in efforts to treat victims of a particularly bad outbreak of yellow fever in Apalachicola. Those who were struck with yellow fever suffered from high fevers and an unquenchable thirst, and Gorrie believed cold was the cure. (It’s worth noting that scientists didn’t discover the true culprit of yellow fever—the Stegomyia Fasciata mosquito—for another 50 years after Gorrie received his patent.)
Though Gorrie received patents for his invention from both England and the US, he was unable to secure the capital necessary to enter his invention into the market, so unfortunately, the Floridian origin story of modern air-conditioning stops here. Luckily, Gorrie’s legacy lives on today at the John Gorrie Museum, a Florida state park in Apalachicola that proudly displays a replica of Gorrie’s ice-making machine and other artifacts from the time period.