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Hispanic American inventors have enriched our lives by building some of the most important innovations we use today. 

Round-Up: Hispanic Heritage Month

Each week this September-October, we celebrated the contributions of Hispanic American inventors on our social accounts, with four inventions that changed all our lives.

Text on blue background: Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman in space. She also invented the systems that allow computers to “see,” permitting them to detect anomalies in visual patterns and to recognize objects, technology that revolutionized manufacturing inspection processes.

1. Optical Processing Systems

As a specialist in optical systems development, Ellen Ochoa worked at the Sandia National Laboratory and at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where she developed systems for recognizing objects and flaws in repeating patterns.

She is also an astronaut, and was the first Hispanic woman in space. She later went on to serve as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and eventually, chair of the National Science Foundation.

Her optical detection systems would eventually become automated to dramatically streamline manufacturing inspections, removing possibilities for human error and insuring uniformity and accuracy in products across industries.

2. X-Ray Reflection Microscope

Text on blue background: Albert Vinicio Báez co-invented the x-ray microscope in 1948, while he was still a grad student at Stanford university. He was also Joan Báez’s dad, and a committed pacifist, leading him to turn down lucrative defense contractor jobs, instead working for UNESCO in Iraq.

Co-invented by Albert Vinicio Báez in 1948, while he was still a grad student at Stanford, the x-ray reflection microscope allowed scientists to view a wide range of objects in magnified view, from distant galaxies to the tiniest cells.

Name sound familiar? Yup, he’s Joan Báez’s dad. He was also a committed pacifist, which led to him refusing lucrative defense industry jobs.

Báez went to work for UNESCO instead, moving his family to Baghdad in 1951, where he established the the physics department and laboratory at Baghdad University.

3. Advanced Plasma Rocket Engine

White text in front of a background image representing the surface of Mars: Franklin Chang-Díaz invented an advanced plasma rocket engine with the theoretical capability to carry humans to Mars in under 40 days. He also worked on the crew that built the International Space Station and was the first Latin-American immigrant to fly for NASA.

The advanced plasma rocket engine, invented by Franklin Chang-Diaz, has the theoretical capability to take a crew to Mars in only 39 days.

Chang-Díaz is also a former astronaut, and tied with Jerry L. Ross for the most missions flown for NASA, and was a member of the crew that built the International Space Station. He was the third Latin American to fly for NASA, but the first Latin American immigrant. He moved from Costa Rica in 1969 to complete his education, and became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

Chang-Díaz founded Ad Astra Rocket Company to support further development of the plasma engine. While the dream of a short trip to Mars remains theoretical, as the rocket would require a power source ten times more efficient than a nuclear reactor to get there, its first uses are expected to involve carrying cargo in support of NASA’s Return to Moon endeavor.

4. Transdermal Medication Delivery Systems, a.k.a. Patches

White text on a blue background image with four patches depicted on the right: Alejandro Zaffaroni invented the transdermal patch to deliver medications with reduced side effects via the skin in 1968. His invention has improved treatment for millions of patients with glaucoma, diabetes, chronic pain, menopause, and gender dysphoria, among many other uses.

Uruguayan-American biotechnology pioneer Alejandro Zaffaroni formed a company called ALZA in 1968, and developed patch-based delivery of a wide range of medications, beginning with glaucoma treatment and hormone therapies, and expanded to a wide range of uses.

Multiple studies have shown that nicotine patch use doubles the likelihood a smoker will successfully quit. Hormone patches significantly reduce blot clots and other side effects for birth control users without reducing effectiveness; in HRT applications, they treat the miseries of menopause with reduced side effects as well. They have also become an important tool in gender affirming care. They help people with non-insulin-dependent diabetes, severe chronic pain, and motion sickness. Zaffaroni’s invention is, in other words, something like a platform via which a wide variety of forms of relief are delivered.