This paper presents an exploratory study on the characteristics of inventive activities as captured on the basis of the analysis of a data-set of R&D awards. Our data source is the "R&D 100 Awards" competition organized by the journal Research and Development. Since 1963, the magazine (which at that time was called Industrial Research) has been awarding this prize to 100 most technologically significant new products available for sale or licensing in the year preceding the judgment. The jury is composed of university professors, industrial researchers and consultants with a certified level of competence in the specific areas they are called to asses. The main criteria for assessment are: i) technological significance (i.e., whether the product can be considered a major breakthrough), ii) competitive significance (i.e., how the product compares to rival solutions available on the market). Throughout the years, key breakthroughs inventions such as Polacolor film (1963), the flashcube (1965), the automated teller machine (1973), the halogen lamp (1974), the fax machine (1975), the liquid crystal display (1980), the printer (1986), the Kodak Photo CD (1991), the Nicoderm antismoking patch (1992), Taxol anticancer drug (1993), lab on a chip (1996), and HDTV (1998) have received the prize. We use these data to study the shifts in the distribution of innovative activities across countries, sectors and types of institutions and the changes in the sources of inventive activities over time. Our preliminary findings show: i) the emergence of a challenge to US technological leadership from other rival nations such as Japan and Germany, ii) the critical role of scientific instrumentation as a powerful source of technological breakthroughs, iii) a change in the institutional arrangements where innovative activities take place, from individual corporations, to partnerships increasingly involving public research organizations and universities, iv) a large chunk of inventive activities undertaken without patent protection.