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Tools Of The Trade For The Independent Inventor

A Special Tribute To:

Jerome Lemelson
The Most Prolific Inventor of Our Time

Shining Example and Role Model

Philanthropist in Support of Inventing in America

Over the years, Jerome Lemelson touched many of us in the invention community. I am personally grateful for his friendship and his moral support in our grassroots lobbying effort for inventor rights as well as his past participation in the Invention Convention and Inventors Voice Round Table Dinner. The independent inventor has lost a friend and staunch supporter and Jerome will be deeply missed.

In this light, the following tribute captures the essence and spirit of Jerome Lemelson. His amazing life story is provided in the Los Angeles Times Obituary.
Stephen Paul Gnass

  • Los Angeles Times Obituary
  • A Tribute by Don Costar

    Visit MIT's Invention Dimension which showcases the many educational programs that are part of Lemelson's legacy to future generations.

    Los Angeles Times Obituary
    Friday, October 3, 1997
    Jerome Lemelson; Inventor Held 500 Patents
    By MYRNA OLIVER, Times Staff Writer

    Jerome H. Lemelson, the nation's most prolific contemporary inventor, who held about 500 patents and used profits from his bar code scanner to encourage young inventors, has died. Lemelson was 74.

    The iconoclastic inventor, who lived in Incline Village, Nev., died Wednesday in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of liver cancer, hospital spokesman Tim Blair said.

    If additional pending patent applications are approved, Lemelson could become the American to hold the most patents since Thomas Edison, his son Eric said.

    Unusual among independent inventors in that he made his living solely from royalties on his patented inventions, Lemelson invented high-tech mechanisms that translated into automated warehouses, industrial robots, cordless telephones, fax machines, videocassette recorders, camcorders and the magnetic tape drive used in Sony's Walkman tape players. He also invented some medical instruments, including a talking thermometer for the blind.

    But it was Lemelson's "machine vision device" that made him a wealthy man and enabled him to endow the annual $500,000 Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prize for outstanding inventors, hand the Smithsonian Institution its largest cash gift (more than $10 million) to establish the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, and provide funds for MIT and other universities to encourage budding inventors.

    "Every new American inventor is a potential new American business. By growing our own technology and rewarding American inventors with protectable patents," he said in 1994 when he established his philanthropic Lemelson Foundation, "we create jobs at home and capture revenue streams throughout the globe."

    Lemelson, working out of his parents' home in Staten Island, N.Y., first applied for a patent on his "machine vision device" in 1956. By the time it was finally approved in 1989, bar code scanning technology had been developed around the world and installed everywhere from supermarkets to automobile assembly lines. He collected hundreds of millions of dollars from Japanese, European and American companies that had used his idea.

    As a child, Lemelson was fascinated by airplanes--so he designed and sold model planes in his basement. By World War II, he was designing weapons systems and aircraft-handling equipment for the Army Air Corps.

    Lemelson earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University in aeronautical and industrial engineering. He stayed on for a time at NYU to work on the Navy's Project Squid, developing rocket and pulse jet engines.

    But as a young man, he set himself up as an independent inventor, first earning money by licensing and marketing toys and novelty items.

    In 1954, when he was 31, Lemelson applied for his first patents--on warehouse automation and robot systems--and he quickly became a familiar customer at the U.S. Patent Office. When he married interior decorator Dorothy Ginsberg, the couple spent part of their honeymoon there.

    Lemelson's first major commercial success came in 1964, when the Triax Co. of Cleveland licensed his automated warehousing system. That was only the beginning. In 1974, he licensed patents for the audiocassette drive mechanism to Sony Corp. In 1981, about 20 of his patents in data- and word-processing technology were licensed to IBM.

    Between 1992 and 1995, Lemelson licensed his bar scanning technology used in electronics and automobile manufacturing to more than 70 companies, including Sony, Apple Computer and Daimler-Benz.

    Once he obtained patents, Lemelson was meticulous about enforcing them through the courts, often collecting millions of dollars from major manufacturers that were marketing his ideas.

    He was often far ahead of his time. The Patent Office rejected his first application for a patent on the camcorder in 1977, Eric Lemelson recalled, "because the examiner said it was ridiculous to think that video recorders could be miniaturized to the size required for portability."

    A staunch advocate of protecting and encouraging independent inventors, Lemelson served on a federal advisory committee on patent issues from 1976 to 1979. He fought to maintain U.S. patent protections, including secrecy of pending applications and fixed-length patent terms.

    Lemelson is survived by his wife, Dorothy; sons Eric of Portland, Ore., and Robert of Los Angeles; brothers Howard and Justin; and two grandchildren.


    A Special Tribute to Jerome Lemelson By Don Costar

    He was too much a part of the positive things the inventor community represents. I'd like to contribute my thoughts in a memorial tribute to Jerry and try to clear up misconceptions about the man. If the post is too long, I sincerely apologize - it's hard to take a snapshot of a giant.

    He was a personal friend, one with whom I had many conversations, sometimes late at night, about the little things in life friends talk about. I treasured those talks. He was my hero then, and he still is. I firmly believe the world will come to think of Jerry as a true American hero to all. He went out on point, so he could take the bruises and lumps for all of us who can't fight back when the corporate bullies eat our lunch.

    Picture this:
    Visual information captured by a video camera-- convert that signal to digital information readable by a computer, then use the stored information to send commands to an assembly line robot. Bar code readers identify an assembly line part, determine its position, direct the robot to pick up and send the part to its next destination. That remarkable concept is called "machine vision."

    You say high tech, state of the art technology for the 21st century? Well, you got that part right... The only thing is, it was invented by Jerome H. Lemelson nearly 50 years ago!!

    Hold on! you say, wait a minute! Where did the video camera, computer and bar code reader come from? They didn't have those things in the 50's. Well, actually they did, but not in the sophisticated form we are familiar with today. That's where the Lemelson genius came in...

    "Jerry" Lemelson looked at the newest, most advanced technology and instead of saying "Wow!, what'll they think of next" like you and I, he immediately started to invent an improvement or a new and better application. That's why he was usually working on a solution for something that was not yet a problem. When someone suffered an injury or sickness, Jerry would try to analyze why it happened and what invented might have prevented it.

    In the machine vision example above, Jerry Lemelson conceived the idea, reduced it to practice by filing for a patent, then invented or improved the technology to make it work. Which of course, led to more inventions and more patents. It was this uncanny grasp of applied technology that led him to the concept of "automated" warehousing, where computer operated equipment loads, stacks and gathers merchandise from bins. That was the first "high tech" invention that Jerry licensed. It was a big step up from grinding out a living selling and licensing toy patents. He couldn't afford an attorney and barely could afford the patent filing fees, so he tried to claim such broad coverages (the duty of an inventor) that it took the PTO many years to sort them all out.

    Eventually seven patents issued from that one. Jerry always thought it was astounding that people thought he was the one who kept those patents from being issued. He was fighting like hell to get the technology licensed for some desperately needed income.

    Now with over 500 patents, he is rated among the top three inventors in all American history!

    The machine vision patents became part of assembly line technology used throughout the industrial world by manufacturers of automobiles, electronics and other products. Jerry tried in vain to interest U.S. manufacturers in the technology, but to say they weren't interested is an understatement. They were not only not interested, most didn't even understand it. (Obviously not its value) Eventually Jerry was contacted by an English firm who in turn licensed his technology to Japanese firms who did license more than a score of his machine vision patents. You see, Jerry Lemelson was a "pure" inventor in the highest sense. What is a pure inventor? He didn't build factories and industries, but inventions that came from his incredible mind created just as many jobs, and just as much economic benefit as if he had.

    It's probably the most satisfying of rewards for the pure inventor. The phrase "in the highest sense" refers to the fact that unlike the industries and companies that file patents on "changes", Jerry invented "improvements." Changes alone are not always that noble in purpose. Jerry related inventing to improving the quality of life, or the efficiency of motion. A pure inventor is also an inventor with uncommon courage; a man who makes a life decision to not take the path of conformity by working in some corporate cocoon or by starting a business. In his case, a tough decision for a young engineer with a Master's degree under his belt and course work completed for a Doctorate. Finding a job wouldn't have been difficult.

    That's not to say Jerry never worked, he did, as an industrial engineer for several years. But it wasn't long before his agile mind broke free from the structured corporate environment. He kept inventing things in his mind and felt strongly that if he really devoted his energy to inventing full time, he could make a living at it.

    He saw innovation as a more effective use of his personal assets: a fine engineering education, a true love of inventing, and an understanding that people needed things to make their life safer, more comfortable or more efficient.

    Jerry analyzed obvious things, such as: he needed some income and children needed safer toys. He set about to develop, and market, the "Velcro" Dart Board. Unable to afford legal or drafting fees, Jerry taught himself to make the required drawings and write his own patent applications. When he discovered he could actually market his inventions it reaffirmed his belief that inventing could be a vocation. (And there was always the chance that he might hit the "home run.")

    His home runs came in the form of mostly high tech breakthrough inventions, but one of his more mundane ideas was one of those things that, until Jerry thought of it, no one knew they needed it: the Sony Walkman. Needless to say, again apathetic U.S. manufacturers couldn't see any value in a portable tape player without a speaker. Once again he was forced to go to foreign buyers.

    As with most successful people in our history, they attract opposition of one sort or another. In Jerry Lemelson's case, it was the patent infringer. There has always been, and will be, those who prefer to help themselves to other folk's property, forcing the owners to police their own turf. American history is rife with cases and stories of horse and cattle rustlers. "Patent rustlers" are no different. It's intellectual property instead of livestock.

    One of Jerry's first experiences with rustlers of intellectual property came after he invented a simple face mask toy, for cereal boxes. When he discovered an infringing duplication he sued. That one cereal company spent upwards of $150,000 in legal fees defending their infringement, while by their own admission it would have cost them only $15,000 to have dealt fairly with the inventor and paid the royalties, which they ended up doing anyway. The corporate legal sharks just couldn't admit to having rustled the inventor's property. That was one of Jerry's first infringement problems. Many more consumed enormous amounts of his time, his energy and his money in the years that followed.

    Some say that had Jerry Lemelson been able to devote those years inventing, instead of in court fighting infringers, his third place position behind Thomas Edison and Edwin Land might have been reversed. That observation becomes even more incredible when one learns that while Edison and Land employed teams of inventors and engineers, working in well equipped research labs, Jerry Lemelson's lab and team was all between his ears.

    The Lemelson mind was a finely tuned instrument and ready to respond to any stimulus. While talking to Jerry, you would have his full attention, but with a vague feeling that he was sort of channeling on another level while simultaneously discussing the subject in which you were interested. He would never be rude, it was just his incredible powers of awareness.

    I personally experienced it during an oriental lunch with Jerry. Even though he was using his chopsticks deftly, and the conversation was far removed from that restaurant, Jerry could very easily have been also inventing something like a safer surgical procedure in that other part of his mind. He kept staring at the chopsticks and I recall saying, "Jerry, for pete's sake chopsticks have been around for a thousand years and they're as simple as they can ever be. Are you trying to improve on them?" He laughed, as if I had caught him plotting a practical joke.

    It's a little scary, almost a religious experience, to know we had a real American hero of his stature living among us. Like the book heroes of an earlier time, he was willing to face down the thieves and corporate criminals (dragons) so the little guys of the world could feel a bit safer. He should have been doing more of what he loved -- inventing, instead of fighting those dragons for us. Even though those dragons were sapping his strength and resistance, he fought on, for us. I heard the paralyzing weariness in his voice when we last spoke. But he knew he could not stop fighting those corporate bullies. To him it simply was the right thing to do.

    What an honorable and selfless thing he did: putting America's welfare ahead of his own health and personal needs.

    Was he revered and recognized as he should have been? By American inventors and those who knew him, yes, very much so. By big corporate America and Federal bureaucrats? Never. To them he was the antithesis of their world... And he has become our inspiration to take up his standard and continue to fight corporate arrogance and greed, wherever and whenever we can, for as long as we can. Jerome H. Lemelson was an honest and courageous man -- light years ahead in his vision and desires for a safer, more friendly world. A much loved book hero from another age.

    Don Costar, personal friend, honored to be so.
    Don Costar is the founder of the Nevada Inventors Association, Editor of the organization's newsletter, and an outspoken advocate of inventors rights.