Q: Vote for one of Fast Company's best-of-the-best innovations, or nominate your own: 
A: The bar code  || The signature file  || The lab mouse  || The catalytic converter 
The Killer App -- Bar None
What: The bar code and scanning device
When: Invented in 1949; patented in 1952; first used commercially in 1974
Where: South Beach, Miami Beach, Florida
Who: Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver
The format for the bar code came to Joe Woodland while he was at the beach in 1949. Woodland, who is now 80, had spent World War II working on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he returned to Drexel University to teach mechanical engineering. While there, a colleague of Woodland's, Bernard Silver, overheard the president of the Food Fair grocery stores appealing to a Drexel dean for help automating the process of grocery checkout. Silver and Woodland started brainstorming ideas.
Several months later, Woodland was vacationing on Miami's South Beach, pondering the problem and considering how Morse code might be used to solve it. Woodland idly stuck his fingers in the sand and pulled them toward him, raking a set of parallel lines that represented a kind of "long form" of dots and dashes. Those lines were the inspiration for the bar-code design that he and Silver ultimately patented.
The bar code is one of the killer apps of the digital economy. More than a million companies worldwide use the familiar UPC (Universal Product Code) symbols to identify consumer products. But the UPC symbol is just a subset of a much wider world of bar codes that are used for all kinds of identification and inventory control. FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service use proprietary bar codes to move mail and parcels. NASA uses bar codes on the back of the heat-resistant tiles of its space shuttles to make sure the right tiles get in the right places. Researchers use tiny bar codes to track bees in and out of hives.
The Uniform Code Council, which issues the UPC product codes, estimates that UPC codes alone get scanned 5 billion times a day -- and UPC codes account for perhaps only half of the bar-code universe.
The equipment and software that is used to print, scan, and program bar codes is a $16-billion-a-year business. Even Woodland is amazed at how widespread the bar code has become. "Fifty years ago, we didn't even imagine all of the ways that it would be used in the grocery store."
-- Charles Fishman
Flash of Insight
What: The Honda Insight
When: December 19, 1999
Where: Tochigi, Japan
Who: A special Tochigi-based team drawn from electric-vehicle project teams and sports-car development teams
Honda vehicle developers delivered a mighty message to the car culture when they introduced the Insight: You can be energy efficient and techno-savvy, and you can look cool while you do it.
Of course, Honda has a long history of innovation. But with the two-seater Insight, it has surpassed even its own extensive track record. The Insight uses its own braking motion to create power and recharge the battery, eliminating the need to plug it into any outside power source. At stoplights, the car's engine automatically shuts off, conserving energy; engaging the clutch automatically restarts the engine. All of this, combined with an aerodynamic design that's sleek and futuristic but not outlandish, means that the Insight offers a smooth, powerful, and surprisingly quiet ride -- all for the bargain price of $18,980.
Honda has long been known for its reliable vehicles and for their high gas mileage, even on nonelectric models. The Insight was meant to take that success one step further. "We wanted to change people's perceptions that 'environmentally friendly' means 'compromise,' " says Robert Bienenfeld, a senior manager of automobile product planning. "We wanted to deliver a technological tour de force -- a statement of where we think advanced technology needs to go in the next century." To do that, Honda did not rely on just one team of experts, but drew heavily from electric-vehicle researchers and sports-car developers -- which sends the message that cross-leveraging seemingly divergent corporate specialties often yields the most creative result.
Of course, few cutting-edge efforts of this scale are perfect the first time around. If the success of the Insight lies in its superior performance, both economically and environmentally, then its failure lies in its tiny two-seat capacity and miniscule trunk (too small even for a Rollerboard suitcase). So keep your eyes peeled for Honda's next innovation: a five-seat, full-size Civic -- equipped with a hybrid electric-and- gasoline engine.
-- Alison Overholt
What: The signature file, better known as the "sig file" -- a few lines of text appended to email messages
When: Circa 1980
Where: Probably somewhere on FidoNet, or some other early online bulletin boards that gave way to Usenet
Who: Unknown. Sig files are so easy to create, no self-respecting nerd has stepped forward to claim parentage.
If email is the Internet's killer app, the signature file represents the assassin's initials etched on the bullet. Sig files describe who the sender is -- job title, phone number, and so on. But they also reveal what the sender is about, because the essence of a sig file is the digital sound bite affixed below one's coordinates. Some choose an inscrutable observation: "Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time." Others go for inspiration: "All people smile in the same language."
Standing at the juncture of the oldest instinct for self-expression and the newest zeal for self-promotion, the sig file is a perfect embodiment of the new economy. Sig files signify status. In the egalitarian world of cyberspace, nobody knows whether you're a dog or a CEO. The sig file tells where you stand. And those little quotations, seemingly so benign, reflect a deeper human yearning in the tradition of "Kilroy was here," which scrawled out proof that you existed.
The sig file is also a killer business strategy. Hotmail -- one of the pioneers of free, Web-based email -- attracted more than 12 million subscribers in its first 18 months thanks to its effective use of the sig file. The ploy, now aped by nearly everyone on the Net, was ingenious: Hotmail's sig file enlisted users as unpaid endorsers of the service and allowed the service to market itself merely by being used. Today, Hotmail, now owned by Microsoft (natch), has more than 60 million subscribers.
-- Daniel H. Pink
You can find quotations for your own sig file (http://www.siglets.com or http://www.coolsig.com) on the Web.
What: The lab mouse
When: First documented use as a research tool in 1909
Where: An undergraduate dorm room, Harvard College
Who: Clarence Cook Little
There is no category of Nobel Prize called "best supporting researcher." But if there were, it would surely be awarded to the unassuming lab mouse. Last year, the distinguished British scientific journal Nature concluded that 17 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research in which a lab mouse was indispensable.
Why are mice so nice for biological research? They are small and easy to care for -- and, in 12 months, a pair of mice can produce the equivalent of a century's worth of human descendants. Plus, "mice basically have the same genes as humans," says Joyce Peterson of the Jackson Laboratory, the premier breeder of research mice. "Mice have the same systems as humans, all the same little organs, plus a couple more. They get the same diseases for the same reasons."
The lab mouse has a long history. Clarence Cook Little was an undergraduate at Harvard College when he started breeding mice in his dorm room as a way of testing his theory that some kinds of cancer might be hereditary. Little became president of the University of Maine, and then the University of Michigan. Ultimately, he returned to research, founding the Jackson Laboratory as a cancer-research center, using money from auto moguls he met while in Michigan, including Roscoe B. Jackson, head of Hudson Motorcar Co.
Since then, the mouse has helped discover penicillin. Vaccines for a range of ailments, from polio to rabies, were developed using mice. Much of what scientists and physicians know about the immune system comes from working with mice -- including techniques that have made the transplants of kidneys and hearts routine.
And mice are big business. The journal Science has estimated the total market for research mice at more than $200 million a year, in excess of 20 million mice. Manipulation of mice genomics has become routine, and the mapping of the human genome is expected to lead to an explosion of demand for mice to test new drugs, new theories about disease, and new methods of treatment.
Cutting-edge research on Alzheimer's, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, almost all kinds of cancer -- even heart disease -- relies on mice. "The mouse is in the vanguard of research," says Robert Jacoby, a veterinarian and research scientist who heads Yale University's Animal Resources Center. "The mouse is at the fulcrum of understanding how genes actually operate in whole living systems."
-- Charles Fishman
What: The catalytic converter
When: First required on 1975 model-year cars
Where: Engelhard Corp.; Iselin, New Jersey
Who: Carl D. Keith
Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, pulls no punches: "The catalytic converter revolutionized the automobile." The numbers support O'Donnell's claim. Since their introduction in 1975, catalytic converters have reduced the pollution that comes from car tailpipes by about 95%. "Instead of being the greatest villain, in terms of air pollution, cars are cleaner and cleaner," says O'Donnell.
It turns out that the much-maligned federal government is the hero of the catalytic-converter story. Over the strenuous objections of carmakers, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, imposing strict emission standards on automobiles. Among other things, carmakers predicted that the regulations would dramatically reduce performance and fuel efficiency.
Instead, not only has pollution dropped dramatically, but carmakers have steadily improved fuel efficiency, in part to meet the demands of the pollution regulations. The Clean Air Act's rules had another dramatic effect: Because catalytic converters are damaged by lead, their widespread use meant that lead had to be eliminated as an ingredient in gasoline. As a result, lead, a dangerous toxin, has all but disappeared as an environmental pollutant.
A catalytic converter consists of two basic elements: a honeycomb made of a sophisticated kind of mud, and a metal catalyst that is applied to the walls of the honeycomb and that does the work of converting harmful gases to relatively harmless ones. The honeycomb itself, invented by Corning Inc., is a marvel of manufacturing and performance. Known as the "ceramic core," the honeycomb design is about the size of a soda can but offers an internal surface area the size of a football field. The earliest catalytic converters had about 100 tiny channels, or cells, per square inch. The current standard converter packs 400 channels per square inch.
More than half of the remaining pollution from cars comes during their first two minutes of operation -- when catalytic converters haven't heated up enough to work at maximum efficiency. New regulations are expected to reduce the pollution from today's trucks and buses another 90% by the end of the decade.
-- Charles Fishman
Over the Hump
What: The Perl programming language
When: December 18, 1987
Where: Santa Monica, California
Who: Larry Wall, former employee of Unisys Corp., currently affiliated with O'Reilly & Associates Inc.
The Internet economy has its share of stars, from John Chambers to Steve Case. The Perl programming language also deserves a place in the pantheon of Web heroes. Known as the "duct tape of the Internet," Perl has been hailed as the single most important tool for expanding Web sites quickly and for minimizing development times. More than half of the sites on the Web are built using Perl as the foundation, or "glue," that holds together text files and other applications.
How Perl was created, and how it works, is as important as what it does. Perl is a poster child for the open-source software revolution -- volunteer programmers from all over the world work to make it better. And unlike most computer languages, which are based on a strict logic and prescribe a single "right" way to code for an outcome, Perl was created by linguist Larry Wall to mimic natural languages. "There are many ways to say the same thing, depending on what you're optimizing for -- elegance, speed, simplicity," says Wall. This allows Perl programmers a large measure of creative expression in the way that they build sites -- a quality not often found in computer coding.
Like any major computer innovation, Perl has its share of quirks and eccentricities. For example, the most popular physical symbol of this software triumph is . . . the camel. Years ago, O'Reilly & Associates put a camel on the cover of Programming Perl, the bible of Perl developers everywhere. The camel has become so popular that the O'Reilly Web site devotes a section to the ways in which the finer points of trademark law apply to the Perl camel.
It's one of the many indications of the cultlike following that has sprung up around the language. Wall encourages the culture, in whatever strange forms it may take. "With my linguistics background, I've learned that a language without a culture is a dead language," he says. "Encouraging programmers to feel creative in their coding process means that there is a real base of mind power there when we go out and ask them to help us solve technical problems with Perl."
-- Alison Overholt
Good As Gold
What: The Hertz #1 Club Gold program
Where: Airport locations throughout the United States
Who: Frank Olson, former CEO and current chairman of Hertz Corp.
We've all experienced the hell of renting a car at the airport. Long lines, misplaced reservation numbers -- isn't there a better way? Twelve years ago, one company was determined to find out. Enter the Hertz #1 Club Gold system, now a staple of the business-travel network and a pioneer in its own time when it comes to customer service.
Introduction of the #1 Club Gold system cut the wait time for renting a car from almost 30 minutes down to the brief minute or two that it takes for customers to orient themselves when they step off the courtesy shuttle bus from the airport. To join the club, customers establish a profile that includes their name, driver's-license number, credit-card information, preferred size and type of vehicle, and rental history. Hertz stores this information and generates contracts from it each time a #1 Gold customer makes a reservation. When customers step off the shuttle bus, they look for their name on the LED board at the Hertz rental location; the listing directs them to a numbered parking space. The car keys and rental contract are waiting in the vehicle, and customers are off as soon as they verify their identity with the lot attendant at the exit booth. The system's defining virtue is its simplicity.
The brainchild of then-CEO Frank Olson, the #1 Club Gold program was a direct result of airline deregulation. With deregulation came a dramatic increase in the number of airline passengers -- and, ergo, in the number of travelers looking to rent cars at airport locations. The #1 Gold program was established as much for its ability to improve the lives of Hertz employees as it was to help customers -- crowds had become too difficult to manage. And success had a hefty price tag: approximately $10,000 to $15,000 per parking stall to build out the physical space at each #1 Club Gold location, plus the many millions of dollars in customer-service support that's required each year to maintain accurate driver's-license information and credit-card information for members. The lesson? Innovation demands investment, but good investments pay off big: The #1 Gold Club is now also the number-one car-rental program in the world.
-- Alison Overholt
Where Am I Going?
What: The OnStar vehicle-communication system created by General Motors Corp.
When: June 1995 OnStar unit formed; September 1996 first OnStar system installed in Cadillac models.
Where: Troy, Michigan
Who: Chet Huber, president of OnStar
Most of us have had it with the hype about how "smart" devices will simplify our lives. But GM's OnStar system appears to be one of the few lifestyle devices that may actually live up to its promise.
OnStar combines several technologies that turn your automobile into a traveling node in your "information" network. Using GPS technology, cellular airtime, high-powered antennas, the Internet, and a few real people, OnStar can open your car doors remotely if you lock your keys in it. It can help you order dinner, get driving directions off the Web, trade stocks through Fidelity Investments - and, soon, remotely diagnose why your "check engine" light keeps coming on even while you're stuck in traffic.
Why does OnStar work? Simplicity. While other navigation-and-information systems depend on flat-panel display screens and fancy toggle switches, GM's OnStar relies on the push of a button installed on the rearview mirror. "We had to deliver a service that would be broadly accepted -- not just something for early adopters," says Chet Huber, president of OnStar at General Motors.
Ultimately, OnStar may say more about the future of GM than it will about the future of the driving experience. Cars take years to build. Electronics and the Internet change by the minute. For a company used to knowing exactly what a business unit's future is, it took a strategic leap of faith for GM's management to keep betting on OnStar. "Keep in mind, GM is used to having five-year plans for its businesses," says Huber. "Five years ago we weren't even thinking about the Internet or a dial tone in the car," Huber adds. "But GM has given us every opportunity to succeed."
-- Fara Warner