Dr. NakaMats, the Man With 3300 Patents to His Name- page 1 | Science | Smithsonian
Sir Dr. NakaMats is one of the greatest inventors of our time; his biggest claim to fame is the floppy disk. (Yuriko Nakao)

Dr. NakaMats, the Man With 3300 Patents to His Name

Meet the most famous inventor you’ve never heard of – whose greatest invention may be himself

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One of the oldest chestnuts about inventions involves a 19th-century patent official who resigned because he thought nothing was left to invent. The yarn, which periodically pops up in print, is patently preposterous. “The story was an invention,” says Yoshiro Nakamatsu. “An invention built to last.”

He should know. Nakamatsu—Dr. NakaMats, if you prefer, or, as he prefers, Sir Dr. NakaMats—is an inveterate and inexorable inventor whose biggest claim to fame is the floppy disk. “I became father of the apparatus in 1950,” says Dr. NakaMats, who conceived it at the University of Tokyo while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. “There was no mother.”

Though Dr. NakaMats received a Japanese patent in 1952, this virgin birth is disputed by IBM, which insists its own team of engineers developed the device in 1969. Still, to avoid conflicts, Big Blue struck a series of licensing agreements with him in 1979. “My method of digitizing analog technology was the start of Silicon Valley and the information revolution,” Dr. NakaMats says. His voice is low, slow and patronizing, solicitously deliberate. “I am a cross between Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci.”

The floppy is only a short subject in the nonstop invention film that’s running in Dr. NakaMats’ brain. Among his other creations (he will earnestly tell you) are the CD, the DVD, the fax machine, the taxi meter, the digital watch, the karaoke machine, CinemaScope, spring-loaded shoes, fuel-cell-powered boots, an invisible “B-bust bra,” a water-powered engine, the world’s tiniest air conditioner, a self-defense wig that can be swung at an attacker, a pillow that prevents drivers from nodding off behind the wheel, an automated version of the popular Japanese game pachinko, a musical golf putter that pings when the ball is struck properly, a perpetual motion machine that runs on heat and cosmic energy and...much, much more, much of which has never made it out of the multiplex of his mind.

Dr. NakaMats is the progenitor of one other novelty related to floppies: Love Jet, a libido-boosting potion that can be sprayed on the genitalia. The computer component and the mail-order aphrodisiac—and the cash they generate—have taken the inventor of NakaMusic, NakaPaper and NakaVision out of the ranks of the faintly bonkers basement crackpot. The two great financial successes in his perpetual printout of ideas, they give him credibility. Nobody dares to completely kiss off his wilder inventions.

Indeed, Dr. NakaMats has won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Inventors a record 16 times, or so he says, and has been feted all over the world. To commemorate his 1988 visit to the United States, more than roughly a dozen U.S. cities—from San Diego to Pittsburgh—held Dr. NakaMats Days. The State of Maryland made him an honorary citizen, Congress awarded him a Certificate of Special Recognition and then-president George H.W. Bush sent him a congratulatory letter. Dr. NakaMats even tossed out the first pitch at a Pittsburgh Pirates game.

Of all the tributes he says he has received, he is perhaps proudest of having been invested as a knight by the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, an ancient Roman Catholic charitable order. “Which is why I should be addressed as Sir Dr. NakaMats,” he explains.

He’s saying this from behind a desk in an office of Dr. NakaMats House, a central Tokyo high-rise of his own design. Naturally, the front gate is shaped like a colossal floppy disk.

His office is a riot of not-quite-finished projects. A blackboard is slathered in mathematical equations. File folders are piled on chairs. Copies of books he has written—among them, Invention of Politics and How to Become a Superman Lying Down—are scattered on the floor. Everywhere Dr. NakaMats goes, he dislodges great stacks of scientific papers last examined in, say, 1997. While rummaging for a diagram of his Anti-Gravity Float-Vibrate 3-Dimensional Sonic System, a heap of magazines starts a sort of tsunami across the room, dislodging other heaps in its path. He looks straight ahead, firm and unsmiling.

Dr. NakaMats is lean, moderately intense and 84 years old. He wears a sharp, double-breasted pinstriped suit, a striped red tie with matching pocket square and an expression like Ahab looking for a crew to hunt the white whale. Scrupulously polite, he offers a visitor from the United States a cup of Dr. NakaMats Brain Drink (“Lose weight. Smooth skin. Avoid constipation”) and a plate of intellect-enhancing Dr. NakaMats Yummy Nutri Brain Snacks.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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