A Special Tribute to Jerome Lemelson By Don
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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.