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After many an 18-hour day ‘tinkering,’ and more than 500 patents to his name, Jerome Lemelson is America’s most prolific living inventor

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"Don't cut back on basic research. It's necessary to the future of this country. That's my message." Jerome Lemelson, the most prolific living American inventor with more than 500 patents to his name, was talking to us at a celebration of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and as usual he wanted to talk about other inventors.

There was Paul MacCready, who created the wonderful Gossamer Albatross, the plane you pedal like a bike. A beautiful toy? An impractical dreamer? Oh no. MacCready and his colleagues have now developed his vision into a flying wing powered by solar cells. It has already flown for 11 hours straight, as high as 50,500 feet; eventually, it will take impossibly detailed photographs of Earth.

There were Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, winners of the $500,000 Lemelson - M.I.T. Prize for their pioneering work in gene splicing, "which revolutionized biotechnology and was key to the whole biotech industry." And Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the implantable pacemaker.

These inventions came out of basic research, Lemelson says, and penny-wise members of Congress should never forget that.

He should know. Because it was his 18-hour days of tinkering that led him to invent the major components in the now-universal automated factory, the tape drives on compact cassette players, including the Walkman (licensed to Sony in Japan after American firms turned him down, and subsequently farmed out to more than 100 firms), and other devices from injection molding controls to brakes for in-line skates.

"And I received the first patent on the Camcorder," he adds casually when I talk to him later in the Presidential Suite, no less, of the Willard Hotel.

The Lemelsons came to Washington to formally christen the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center, funded with the largest cash donation ever given to the Smithsonian by an individual. I was taken on a whirlwind tour, and I can tell you that this modest set of hushed little offices, squeezed in among a display of patent models from the past (the "Arithmometer," a paper bag machine, an early calculator), roars and bustles like Times Square. Conceptually speaking, you understand.

The center runs symposia on innovation and society; an archival program that collects oral and video histories, and offers electronic locators of living inventors' papers; a terrific website; fellowships and internships; and school programs to encourage young inventors.

The last is a particular concern of Lemelson's. The young, he says, are too media-driven and preoccupied with entertainers and athletes; better if they stop being spectators and identify with inventors, scientists and engineers.

Only a little more than a year in operation, the center is already attracting historians, according to director Arthur Molella. But also hopeful inventors. "Just the other day," Molella says, "a man called me about marketing some cardboard binoculars (you can put ads on them), and it turned out he was a former Philadelphia cop who was badly wounded and started a new life as an inventor. It seems his great-great-uncle invented the shin guard and the batting helmet and is in the Baseball Hall of Fame."

The center, Molella adds, is getting a special constituency: the independent inventor who has to deal not only with global competition but with lavishly financed corporate inventors. "We cannot assist them in applying for patents. But we often hear about their plight, and we can be an information center and help document their ideas. Of course, we're eager to document the corporate ones, too. We want to bring together the scholars and the practitioners. It's not our goal at all to seal ourselves off as historians. Our main audience is the public."

Recently the center got inventor Jacob Rabinow onto National Public Radio's Soundprint, and, for a series called "Innovative Lives," sponsored a lecture by Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of the ultratough material called Kevlar. There will be a symposium on the electric guitar featuring one of its pioneers, Leo Fender himself. Music and other arts are an important part of the whole scene, Molella notes.

The Lemelson Center highlights the work of student inventors, including E-Teams (E for excellence and entrepreneurship) from Lemelson-sponsored programs at Hampshire College, M.I.T. and the University of Nevada, Reno. The Reno E-Team is working on an instant rent-a-car system as a new approach to cheap and efficient public transportation. Satellites will track the exact location of each car &30151; you'll simply call in your credit card number to reserve one at a corner near you.

Lemelson Center programs for kids use the Hands On Science Center, part of the "Science in American Life" exhibition at American History, which lets visitors conduct some two dozen scientific experiments and gives science teachers a computerized data base of resource materials. In its first year the Science Center, sponsored by the American Chemical Society, had 150,000 visitors, which proves to me at least that people are sick of sitting in front of the TV and want to do stuff themselves. The Lemelsons have also set up the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance at Hampshire and given seed money for a Nevada Office of Science, Engineering and Technology.

How does a great inventor start? As a kid on Staten Island, New York, Lemelson built model planes, which naturally led him into the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. He followed that with degrees from New York University, where he worked on the Navy's Project Squid, experimenting with pulse-jet engines and rockets. America had studied the German V-1 buzz bomb and actually built 2,000 of them, but we dumped them off Okinawa when the war ended, he says. His own contribution had to do with the afterburner.

"I was taking a course in patents and their management at NYU, and we were told to find a problem and see if you could solve it, so I drew up an application for a magnetic typewriter eraser that would stick on the side of the typewriter so you wouldn't lose it." He filed and paid the $30 fee but was told it had already been done. And he lost the fee.

Meanwhile, he met his future wife, Dorothy, an interior designer, in 1953, married her the next year and, while working as an engineer, kept inventing in his off-hours. I want to know how it felt when he started inventing full time in 1958. So far, Lemelson is sounding a bit like his own résumé. But Dolly Lemelson, who has been listening carefully all this time, breaks in. "One day it was snowing, and Jerry didn't want to go to work, and he said, 'If I go to work today I'll quit.' And that's when it started."

The first big breakthrough was the automatic warehousing system, 25 years ahead of its time, with patents in 1962 and '64. Today the stacker crane that runs on an overhead monorail with computerized storing and retrieving is a familiar sight all over the world. Lemelson tied it in with his flexible manufacturing system, which lets an assembly line produce different products at the same time, with computers controlling the whole operation. Now practically every car factory on the planet and most electronics firms use this system.

Surely the intelligent production line is the most important advance in manufacturing since Henry Ford's basic manned assembly line. And Jerome Lemelson owns a big piece of it.

Among Lemelson's early inventions was a flexible track car-racing toy. After many years (the average time between conception and bringing a product to market is seven years) a patent was issued, and it became the most popular racing toy ever. But Lemelson never made a cent in royalties; he says a major toy company pirated his concept.

A patent holder might get up to a 25 percent royalty if few items are produced; for a toy it might be 5 percent; for a Disney-type character, up to 12 percent. "Mine range from a fraction to about 7 percent," Lemelson says.

As often happens, one idea sets off another. It was Lemelson who gave industrial robots a photoelectric eye and then replaced it with a video camera. It was Lemelson who digitized the camera's analog signal, enabling it to scan and analyze things thousands of times faster than the human eye can.

This means that a microchip with its millions of switching elements can be inspected in a fraction of a second by machine vision instead of in weeks or months by a person at a microscope. Imagine what that meant for the computer industry. The same techniques can be applied to car assembly, to ensure the quality of welds and paint finishes, for example.

Lemelson got patents on important parts of VCRs, ATMs, cordless phones, fax machines and personal computers, and in the '60s he tried to patent a process for making compact disks. He didn't succeed, but he did get a patent on laser recording that he has now licensed to companies around the world.

"I used to have a workshop in the cellar," the 72-year-old Lemelson recalls, "and I built a lot of my own models. Now I have consultants. For the last 40 years or so I'd sit down and sketch and write and was my own patent attorney."

Dolly: "That's an understatement. He gets up in the morning, exercises, showers, starts work, and around 10 or 11 he has breakfast. We generally go out for dinner, but between meals and after, he is working. Until 12 at least."

He has an amazing capacity for work, she adds. He can sit down and work anyplace, on a sofa at their Lake Tahoe place, in bed, in the car, on a plane. He never gets blocked. "The most horrible thing is to have someone tell you in the car, 'I have this idea, write it down for me, will you?' In the middle of the night he'll get up and write ideas down. And the kind of writing he does is a full exploration of the problem."

Today Lemelson is concentrating on electronic educational systems, and medical inventions. For starters, computer-assisted surgery.

Gee whiz. As it is, the man has changed all our lives. Now he may end up saving them.

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