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

Sir Dr. NakaMats is one of the greatest inventors of our time; his biggest claim to fame is the floppy disk. (Yuriko Nakao)
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So much for Mrs. NakaMats.

Arguably, Dr. NakaMats’ greatest brainchild is Dr. NakaMats, a scientific superhero for whom exaggeration is a reflex. This is a guy who claims the stabilizer he invented for erratic model airplanes at age 5 “made autopilot possible.”

He has run unsuccessfully for both houses of Parliament and the governorship of Tokyo, racking up nearly 110,000 of the 4.4 million votes in the 2003 governor’s race. “I can make North Korean missiles do a 180-degree U-turn and go right back to their point of origin,” he promised during a 2007 election. “It’s not a secret, exactly. But if I tell you, the enemy might find out.” As Malvolio said in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Dr. NakaMats believes he’s the sum of those somes.

His genius for self-promotion has not always endeared him to his contemporaries. “Real inventions open our hearts and minds, enrich our lives, bring us closer together,” says countryman Kenji Kawakami, the anarchic founder of chindogu—intentionally silly and impractical creations that are not useful, patented or for sale. “Dr. NakaMats is all about money and fame and ego.”

Kawakami—whose “un-useless” gizmos range from the rotating spaghetti fork to the Grin Grabber, a set of hooks that a grouch slips into his mouth and yanks on to force a smile—may have more in common with Dr. NakaMats than he cares to admit. According to the doctor, many of his contraptions share a single purpose: to increase creativity and human longevity. “Japan’s only natural resources are water, fish, sunlight and brains,” he says. “We must create or die.”

Ever eager to ensure the survival of his country, he invented a musical golf putter called the Secret Weapon. “The club is good for health,” he says. “Because the Secret Weapon can raise a golfer’s accuracy by 93 percent, it lowers his anxiety and blood pressure.” Alas, the Secret Weapon may reduce stress, but it still can’t cure the yips.

Dr. NakaMats is adamant that his “spirit of invention” is neither wealth nor publicity. “My spirit is love,” he says. “Take, for example, my soy sauce pump.” At 14, he watched his mother, a Tokyo schoolteacher named Yoshino, struggle to pour soy sauce from a 20-liter drum into a smaller vessel. “It was a cold winter day during the Second World War,” recalls Dr. NakaMats, whose father, Hajime, was a prosperous banker. “We had no fuel to heat our home.”

Haunted by the image of Yoshino’s trembling hands, he dreamed up a simple appliance, the Shoyu Churu Churu siphon pump. “I loved my mother,” says Dr. NakaMats. “I wished to make her kitchen work easier.” Today the plastic gadget is used to pump kerosene; variations can be found in Japanese hardware stores.

Yoshino, who attended Tokyo Women’s University, began teaching her son physics, chemistry and mathematics when he was a toddler. She encouraged the child prodigy to build prototypes of his inventions and then helped him apply for patents. (He received his first, for a “revolutionary” water heater, in eighth grade). After the war, the bomb shelter in their backyard became the teenager’s workshop. He’d ruminate while listening to a scratchy 78-rpm recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. Eventually, the hissing and popping got so distracting that in 1947, he decided to create a higher-fidelity alternative.

During his studies at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Engineering, Dr. NakaMats came up with an analog phonograph record of wood veneer that could be read with magnetic and light sensors. He adapted it for storing memory, replacing the computer industry’s clunky punch cards. That early floppy, he says, is perhaps the purest embodiment of Ikispiration, the Dr. NakaMats system of creativity. Ikispiration has three essential elements: suji (“theory”), pika (“inspiration”) and iki (“practicality”). “To be a successful invention, all three are needed,” says Dr. NakaMats. “Many inventors have pika, but not the iki to realize their dreams.”

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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