The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab is sort of like a playroom for really smart people, but instead of Legos they use microminature motors and undersea acoustic technologies. This is physics in action, folks, and it’s dramatic.

Last year, 460 scientists at the APL disclosed 259 inventions — an all time high! — but only two get honored at the Invention of the Year Award Reception (yes, trophies were provided).

The top invention of 2011 was the Ultra-Compact Multitasking Motor Controller, which is — well, it’s kind of exactly what it sounds like. By “ultra-compact,” the device’s inventors (Harry Eaton and Douglas Wenstrand) mean “the size of a dime.” Which is, indeed, ultra-compact. The controller is designed to coordinate movement in a state-of-the-art prosthetic arm, which features movements so nuanced that each individual finger can move independently. Previously, most similar controllers were three times the size of this one — and it’s able to coordinate with the 10 motors within the prosthetic arm, to boot.

The day’s other honors, the Government Purpose Innovation Award, went to the Constrained Probability of False Alarm Classification (CPFAC), which (to be honest) sounds less immediately cool, but is probably very useful.  Essentially CPFAC is a way for the Navy to eliminate clutter (ie, shipwrecks, shipping traffic, enormous squid) from sonar target detection and classification systems. This makes false alarms less likely.

According to Jerry Krill, assistant director for science and technology at APL, “Inventions are a key indicator of how innovative an organization is. The number of APL intellectual property disclosures reached an all-time high last year—an 84 percent increase—which is a tribute to our staff’s focus on innovation.”