While Americans born in or with ancestral ties to Arab countries have made countless significant scientific, medical and engineering contributions, most have never made it into record books. From cryptography, to the artificial heart, to the iPod, here are a few examples of some of the major advancements by Arab Americans.
1. Television Transmission and LCD Screens
Born in Nabatieh, Lebanon in 1895, Hassan Kamel Al-Sabbah studied and then taught mathematics at the American University of Beirut before immigrating to the United States in 1921. After a brief stint studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Al-Sabbah earned a master's degree in engineering sciences from the University of Illinois, says Lujine Nasralla, communications specialist at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
“In 1923, General Electric (GE) hired him to work in its Engineering Laboratory under a contract that awarded him a dollar for each of his patents,” Nasralla explains, noting that between 1927 and 1935, he applied for patents for 52 of his inventions while working at GE. Some of the patents Al-Sabbah was awarded during his time at GE include three for innovations in television transmission technology (granted between 1928 and 1930), and two for cathode ray tubes (1935).
Though Al-Sabbah died in a car accident 1935, GE engineers continued to rely on the technology he invented, including developing the liquid crystal display (LCD) based on one of his patents. Al-Sabbah made numerous other significant contributions to science, technology and engineering, especially in the field of solar energy.
2. Emotion Recognition Technology
While Rana El Kaliouby was completing her doctoral research at the University of Cambridge in England in the early 2000s, she never felt as though she could ever truly connect with her loved ones back home. “Away from her family and friends in Egypt, El Kaliouby wished her computer could better convey her emotional state,” Nasralla says. That’s when she decided to find a way to make more emotionally intelligent technology.
After earning her doctorate, El Kaliouby took a position as a research scientist in the Affective Computing group in the MIT Media Lab. There, she was part of a team that developed an “emotional hearing aid,” as well as a pair of eyeglasses that could read emotions, along with social cues. Officially known as “the Emotional-Social Intelligence Prosthesis,” El Kaliouby and a colleague created the wearable technology in 2006 for people living with autism who have difficulty identifying and processing other people’s emotions as they communicate.
In 2009, El Kaliouby and the same MIT colleague co-founded a company called Affectiva, which used deep learning, computer vision, speech science and vast amounts of real-world data to develop emotion recognition technology. “Her pioneering technology accurately reads minute changes in facial expressions that convey emotions,” Nasralla says, adding that El Kaliouby is a member of the Women in Engineering Hall of Fame.
3. The iPod and iPhone
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when listening to music outside of your home meant bringing the physical album with you on a record, audio cassette or compact disc. And while portable MP3 players existed before 2001, none were popular enough to make the device the standard way of listening to music on the go. That is, until Apple CEO Steve Jobs hired Arab American inventor Anthony “Tony” Fadell and put him in charge of a new special projects group within the company tasked with doing exactly that.
The result was the iPod, which launched in 2001. Fadell, who is now known as “the father of the iPod,” went on to oversee the first 18 iterations of the device before Jobs gave him his next assignment: to create a mobile phone with many of the same features as the iPod.
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This time, the end product was the iPhone, which essentially allowed people to carry a highly compact computer with internet capability around at all times, and, in the process, changing the way people access information. Fadell was involved with developing the first three generations of the iPhone.
4. Developments in Surgery
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1908 to Lebanese immigrants, Michael DeBakey (the Anglicized form of Debaghi) grew up spending time in his father’s pharmacy, and enjoyed sewing, gardening and learning how motors and other machinery works. He earned his medical degree in 1932, and served in the Surgical Consultants Division of the Army Surgeon General's Office from 1942 to 1946.
It was during this time that DeBakey and his colleagues developed special units dedicated to providing surgical care to soldiers wounded near the front lines. They were first deployed in 1943, though are best known for their work during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, when they were known as the Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Hospital (MASH) units.
DeBakey’s surgical contributions continued for the next several decades, and included performing the first successful removal of a blockage of the carotid artery (1953), developing the concept behind coronary bypass surgery (1963), pioneering the field of telemedicine with the first demonstration of open-heart surgery transmitted overseas via satellite (1965), and being the first to use a partial artificial heart (1966).
5. Internet Security
While internet security is top-of-mind now, that wasn’t the case when Egyptian-born cryptographer Taher Elgamal began his pioneering work in the field in the 1980s. “Elgamal published a paper in 1984, ‘A Public Key Cryptosystem and a Signature Scheme based on Discrete Logarithms,’ which became the basis of the Elgamal Digital Signature algorithm,” says Richard Gardner, a software developer and CEO of Modulus. This work was then utilized in the development of the Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA).”
Elgamal’s work became even more influential after the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) adopted it as the Digital Signature Standard (DSS). “Like the name implies, it became the standard for electronic signatures,” Gardner explains.
And according to Abdulrahman Henedy, an Arab American entrepreneur and founder of Financeive, Elgamal’s invention of the discrete logarithm was also an important milestone in cryptography. “His work inspired other encryption variations and paved the way to create more advanced algorithms, like Advanced Encryption Standard,” he explains.
In addition, Elgamal was the driving force behind the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a protocol that keeps online communications like email and instant messaging secure. Because of this major technological development, he is known as the “father of SSL.”
6. The Waffle Cone
Though it may not be the most high-tech invention on the list, the waffle cone stands out not only because it’s delicious, but because not one, but four different Arab Americans claimed to have invented it. And what’s perhaps even more bizarre, is that in an origin story with so many inconsistencies, all four of the men contend that their ice cream innovation was born at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition—better known as the Saint Louis World's Fair.
According to Nasralla, Ernest Hamwi, Nick Kabbaz, Abe Doumar and Leon B. Holwey each had their own story about how they came up with the waffle cone in 1904. “We give credit to all four of them, but we don't recognize any of the stories as more plausible than the others,” she explains. “It remains a mystery to this day!”
But that mystery extends beyond which of the Arab American vendors (if any) deserves credit for the waffle cone. That’s because on top of these four narratives, there are several other origin stories, including some that took place prior to 1904. And though we may never know who first devised a handheld edible ice cream container, it’s safe to say that the 1904 World’s Fair and its Arab American dessert vendors did have a hand in popularizing what we now know as the waffle cone.