The show was conceived by Simon Cowell and the producers of "American Idol" after Ben Hausbach appeared on Season 5 with his Cosmic Coaster invention.
Twelve inventors and their products are chosen from a pool of hundreds by four judges. The 12 semi-finalists are broken down into four groups of three, with each episode focusing on a different group of three. Each of the twelve semi-finalists in each group receives $50,000 to improve their inventions and compete to become one of the four finalists.
The finalists would then work with a dedicated prototype and design company, such as T2 Design & Prototype who would help with expert advice and manufacturing assistance.
Each group is assigned a judge who would judge their products that they have invented. Each of the four judges would then choose one inventor from their group to compete in the finals, for a total of four finalists.
In the show's live finale, the four finalists present a 30-second commercial advertisement for their product, with the home audience voting by phone for the winner. The winner receives $1,000,000 worth of business support, entrepreneurial counsel, physical resources, and prize money.
Instead of 12 finalists receiving $50,000 checks to develop their inventions like in season one, six finalists, one from each of the audition cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Tampa and Houston, will each receive $50,000 and have one month to develop their inventions.
The six finalists are narrowed down to three based on the judges' preference. Unlike the first season, the three finalists for voting were declared and were voted on by viewers immediately after the second-to-last show.
The season finale of "American Inventor" was a single show, where the winner is declared among the finalists.
In the first season, the finale was a two-episode feature with 30-second commercials on the first and the results of viewer voting on the second part. Also, the first season had four finalists instead of six narrowed to three.
- Anecia Safety Capsule: A car seat shaped like a sphere with a movable sphere inside it. In the event of a car accident, the sphere will move, lessening the force on the baby. (Winner)
- Word Ace: A game that tells you a letter and a number and you have to come up with a word that starts with the letter and has a number of letters equal to the number. (Final 4)
- Double Traction Bike: A bike with a seat on the handlebars. (Final 4)
- The Catch Vest (aka Receiver Trainer Pole): A bar that sits in front of your body to help you catch footballs properly. (Final 4)
- Inside Umbrella: An umbrella where the top part goes inside the bar. (Final 12)
- Head-Line It: A rubber pad to go on top of your head to prevent sweating and itching under hats, helmets and wigs. (Final 12)
- Sackmaster: A large shovel with a bag inside it to make sand-bag filling easier. (Final 12)
- Here Comes Niya Doll: A multilingual set of dolls. (Final 12) The "Niya Doll" appear again in The Toy Box.
- Bathroom Clip: A clip to attach to a bathroom door in case the lock is broken. (Final 12)
- Tonerbelt: An exercise belt (Final 12)
- EZ-X Portable Gym: A portable gym (Final 12)
- Pureflush: A toilet that prevents the spread of bacteria upon flushing. (Final 12)
- Guardian Angel: A small, pressurized tank of water, disguised as a Christmas package, that is placed under the Christmas tree and attached to a small hose leading to the top of the tree where a fusible link is disguised as an angel. The heat from a fire pops the link and water suppresses the fire. There is also an alarm that works without a battery & intended to suppress (not fully extinguish) a Christmas tree fire and sound an alarm to get people out of the house alive. (Winner)
- 6-In-1 Convertible Brassiere: A convertible brassiere that accommodates the full wardrobe of small frame women with a "C" cup or above. This is a traditional brassiere that converts into six configurations and affords the full back to be exposed with comfort because there is no midsection and it can be worn with full wardrobe. The invention was later commercialized by Maidenform. (Chicago Finalist) (2nd)
- HT Racers: The design and fabrication of custom vehicles through the use of a computer program and patented tools. Intended for use by individuals and groups ages 9 and up for entertainment and educational purposes, this invention is a kit that lets teens design, engineer, and build remote controlled vehicles. (L.A. Finalist) (3rd)
- The Claw: A ceiling or wall-mounted bicycle storage mechanism. The bicycle wheel is grasped by opposing hooks when the central plunger is depressed. Re-pressing the central plunger opens and locks the hooks for bicycle wheel removal. The bi-stable plunger relies on an internal rotary mechanism. (New York Finalist) (Final 6)
- Wrap-a-Way Cabinet: A station to put in a drawer or attach to a cabinet to dispense paper towels, gift wrap, etc. (Houston Finalist) (Final 6)
- EZT4U: A brewing basket that attaches to the common electric coffee brewing machine in order to brew tea. (Tampa Finalist) (Final 6)
The makers of the program were accused of modeling American Inventor on a similar program called Million Dollar Idea.
The validity of the claim that the Guardian Angel was invented by Greg Chavez is unclear. This same "invention" was actually a gag product on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on December 16, 1993, the first night Julia Roberts was a guest on the show.
Leno used a lighter to trigger a smoke alarm within a Christmas tree which then caused the star on the top of the tree to spray a strong burst of water, putting out any potential fire.
Several similar patents have been granted over the years, and Season 1 judge Doug Hall has also called it unoriginal, writing in his blog that he once worked on something similar for a client.
"American Inventor" debuted on March 16, 2006 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Each subsequent Thursday, it aired at 9:00 p.m. until the show's season finale on May 18, 2006.
The show's second season began on June 6, 2007 at 9:00 p.m. on ABC.
On March 20, 2008, the show's official website was removed, and it was not included on the 2008 fall schedule, therefore the series was cancelled.