Around the Mall & Beyond

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 ( nmah/homepage/lemel); 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."


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