New York Ideas 2014

Who Was the Greatest Innovator of the Last 100 Years?

From Oprah Winfrey to Prince, New York Ideas speakers weigh in.

The Atlantic's Editor-in-Chief James Bennet interviews Dr. J. Craig Venter at the 2012 Atlantic Meets the Pacific (Bob Ross / The Atlantic)

Andrew Hessel, distinguished researcher, Autodesk

My vote for greatest innovator of the last 100 years is Dr. J. Craig Venter, the genetic scientist and future Nobel Laureate (you heard it here first, people!) responsible for both the world’s first synthetic organism and the most unfortunate baby name for a new life form, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0. Thankfully, the media renamed her Synthia.

George Dyson, historian of science and technology

Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). Jazz (and so much else that it has inspired and enabled) would never be the same.

Eric Demby, founder, Smorgasburg

I have a hard time not saying Andy Warhol myself. I also think Prince is amazing.

Elizabeth Cutler, co-founder, SoulCycle

Melinda Gates has worked tirelessly to transform the lives of people worldwide through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She is deeply committed to curing disease and ending hunger in developing countries as well as providing education and health resources to those in need in the U.S. Her passion and generosity are peerless, and she has indelibly altered the way we think about giving back.

Julie Rice, co-founder, SoulCycle

Oprah Winfrey used a multi-media platform to inspire billions of people across the globe. She instilled confidence, courage, and ambition in all of us, demonstrating that dreams can and do become a reality. Her message of positivity and empowerment changed the way we think about ourselves—and our world.

Adam Steltzner, lead mechanical engineer for the Mars Curiosity rover

In the last century, people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs have massively changed our world and shaped it through what could look like innovation (Ford because of modern mass production and the vision to market to the middle class, and Jobs because of the array of culture influenced by Apple products). 

In my experience, though, innovation does not come from one individual, but rather groups of people influencing and cross-pollinating each other with ideas. If you look closely, you can find that each of them was really combining ideas that existed prior and mixing the influence of other minds to create new products and ways of doing things.