Hispanic Innovators Who Influenced Mobility Today

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, SpotHero is taking a look at Hispanic innovators who had a profound influence on their respective industries. Their inventions and contributions to modern mobility, politics, and designs inspire us to get into gear!

Luis Walter Alvarez (1911-1988): Improved RADAR and Aircraft Landing Systems

A gifted physicist, Alvarez joined a team at MIT in 1940 working to develop military applications for microwave radar. A pilot of small crafts himself, Alvarez knew firsthand how difficult and dangerous it could be to land a plane in bad weather. Alvarez used his knowledge of physics and aeronautics to create a system called Ground Controlled Approach, which allowed radar operators to guide pilots to land safely when visibility was poor. The system was so successful it was used by the U.S. Military for many years, with other countries adapting it as well! Alvarez would go on to work on numerous other projects and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 for his discovery of resonance states in particle physics.

Isabel Castilla (b. Unknown): Designer of the High Line

Castilla developed a passion for architecture from her father, an avid design enthusiast, which would lead her to study it at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Castilla worked on a number of projects for architecture firms across the country before being selected as the lead designer and project manager of the rail yards section of High Line. Designing the park posed a significant challenge, as park weather conditions could change rapidly depending on construction in the area and the changing landscape surrounding the park. The High Line was met with acclaim and would go on to inspire projects that repurposed disused spaces worldwide. After completing her section of the park in 2014, Castilla became the lead designer of The Underline, a 10-mile-long linear park stretching underneath the Miami-Dade elevated train line. 

Ellen Ochoa (b. 1958): First Hispanic Woman in Space

Ochoa discovered her passion for physics while in college, going on to receive a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and then a master’s and doctorate degree from Stanford. Ochoa began working as a researcher for NASA and eventually set her sights on venturing into space. In 1987 she applied to become an astronaut but was not selected. Instead, she joined NASA as a research engineer. Ochoa kept her application up-to-date, even got her pilot’s license to gain experience, and was finally accepted to the program in 1990. Ochoa first served aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993 on a nine-day mission to study the ozone layer. She would go on three more space flights before retiring from spacecraft operations. Ochoa remained at NASA for the rest of her career and served as the Director of the Johnson Space Center from 2013 until retiring in 2018. She was the first Hispanic person to serve in the role. 

Victor Ochoa (1850-Unknown): Inventor of the electric brake

Born in Mexico, Ochoa was a true renaissance man, working as a writer, journalist, and union leader. He was so politically active that at one point he was forced to flee his home country with a $50,000 bounty on his head! Ochoa was also a lifelong inventor, patenting a specialized rail brake that could help trains react quicker by using magnetic attraction to help them grip the rails. Ochoa’s invention is now considered to be the first electric brake. Ochoa also created a specialized wrench, a wind-powered generator, and the “Ochoaplane,” a small aircraft designed to fold up for easy storage. 

Sonia Sotomayor (b. 1954): First Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court

Sotomayor wanted to be a judge since she was in elementary school. The Bronx native attended Yale Law School and began her law career as an Assistant District Attorney in New York City in 1979. She quickly gained a reputation for her drive, preparation, and fair-mindedness, and quickly won over juries with her ability to empathize on a high level. Sotomayor became a judge in 1992 for the state of New York and was eventually nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she was confirmed in 2009. In addition to being the first Hispanic person on the court, she is also the first woman of color and the first Latina to hold the position. 

Luis von Ahn (b. 1978): Revolutionized Internet Security 

Computer scientist and Guatemalan native von Ahn pioneered security programs designed to prevent bots from perpetrating large-scale abuse on the web. Von Ahn joined a team investigating ways to improve personal internet security in the early 2000s. Their work would revolutionize internet security and become known as CAPTCHA. His team’s success received worldwide attention, which led von Ahn to launch the company reCAPTCHA in 2007. Using the CAPTCHA test technology he helped create, reCAPTCHA asked users to transcribe words that were actually from books and periodicals that had been scanned but could not easily be identified by artificial intelligence. Through the reCAPTCHA program, von Ahn’s technology was able to digitize thousands of rare books, protecting them for future generations. After von Ahn sold reCAPTCHA, he went on to work with Severin Hacker to create the app Duolingo, an app that allows millions of users easy access to language learning services. 

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!