Mothers and fathers of invention talk shop

Inventors attending the Lemelson-MIT Awards in San Francisco discuss how times have changed for high-tech innovators.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
5 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Altering the future ain't what it used to be.

At least that was the sense you got talking to some of the world-changing inventors gathered here Wednesday night for the presentation of the Lemelson-MIT Awards, which recognize key American inventors.

Modern invention is increasingly focused on proprietary, corporate-funded research aimed at achieving narrowly defined business goals. The result has been an intellectual property melee in which companies try to stake claim to ideas as broad as Web links.

But major advances usually come from freely shared exploration, according to some of the big scientific names gathered for the gala black-tie event at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.

Vinton Cerf, regarded as the father of the Internet for his role in creating the TCP/IP protocol that defines online communication, said his work was aimed solely at creating an efficient way for Defense Department computers to communicate. His invention morphed into a modern engine of commerce and screwy business plans because it was freely shared with the rest of the world.

IMAGE TEXT HERE "We weren't thinking about making money in 1973," he said. "We were trying to solve a problem for the Defense Department...Making our work available to a broader community is what really made it take off."

Charles Townes, inventor of the laser, was similarly uninterested in business matters when he made his breakthrough.

"My intent was to make a new scientific instrument--to have a more precise way of measuring wavelength," the Nobel Prize winner said. "I was quite satisfied to accomplish that."

Townes said he had no idea at that time that his invention would later become the foundation for everything from cat toys to CD players to eye surgery, and he said he has no problem with the commercial exploitation of his brainchild.

"Some people would say I haven't gotten enough money from what I did, but the important thing for me was the science," he said. "Proving it could be done, especially after a number of Nobel Prize winners told me it couldn't--that was the reward."

Carver Mead, whose breakthroughs in semiconductor design allowed the chip industry to continue moving forward, said big ideas seldom have much to do with business goals.

"Anything worth remembering that I've ever done, I couldn't get anyone to fund it," he said. "To be a real inventor, you have to be good at not paying attention to the conventional wisdom."

The main case in point was the evening's honoree, Segway scooter inventor Dean Kamen, who received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The very model of the independent, garage-office genius, Kamen promised to use the money to fund his educational program for inspiring young scientists and inventors. IMAGE TEXT HERE

After a brief thank-you speech delivered while he zipped back and forth on a Segway prototype, Kamen spent the rest of the evening schmoozing with fellow inventors while astride his electric steed.

Kamen, whose denim ensemble clashed notably with the predominant tuxedoes, said he created the Segway with the noble goal of creating a clean, working-class alternative to messier forms of urban transportation.

"Every city is polluted," he said. "I don't want to make (the Segway) the next Jet Ski, snowmobile, all terrain vehicle for the rich."

The Stirling motor inside the device will also be used for the developing world. "It will supply electricity and water and other things to a developing world that needs them," he proclaimed.

As he spoke to a small crowd of people gathered by the martini bar, a museum official scurried up with a clipboard for a Lemelson Foundation official. "I am going to need you to sign a release of liability for him," he said, pointing at Kamen teetering on his Segway.

While the Segway's potential remains to be proven, the other main honoree at the ceremony gave the world products that have achieved a level of immortality that Kamen can only dream of. Ruth Benerito, recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, created wash-and-wear cotton blends, an invention that saved the post-World War II cotton industry and still draws thanks from anyone who's ever pushed a hot iron.

Click here to Play

What inventors have in common
Steve Wozniak, co-founder, Apple Computer
The irony of the evening was that the namesake of the awards was hardly the model of the lone inventor tinkering away in his tool-cluttered basement. The late Jerome Lemelson was awarded more than 500 patents but did little to develop his designs into finished products.

Instead, he made a fortune suing companies when elements of his designs showed up in later products, most notably bar-code scanners, which Lemelson claimed infringed on his design for a "machine vision" system.

Lemelson, his companies and heirs have filed more than 135 lawsuits alleging that companies such as General Motors and Otis Elevator had infringed on his patents. Several of the honored guests at Wednesday's soiree work for companies still litigating with Lemelson's estate.

Gerald Hosier, who represented Lemelson in some of his most celebrated cases, said his client never followed traditional routes. He never worked for a major scientific company, never tried to get venture capital and never tried to turn his work into products. "Under patent law, you don't have to build it or commercialize it," Hosier said, noting that the current start-up climate didn't exist in the 1950s.

Despite his controversial contributions to modern intellectual property litigation, Lemelson used much of the proceeds from his legal settlements to inspire other inventors. The $250 million Lemelson Foundation issues numerous grants and awards to promising tinkerers every year, has numerous programs to encourage young inventors and publishes books and online material to recognize visionaries such as Frank Zamboni, creator of the ice-scraping machine familiar to hockey fans everywhere.

Although Kamen was the focus for the evening, Sigrid Cerf, wife of the Internet patriarch, took the prize for the most inventive item shown that evening. After carrying on a 15-minute conversation, she explained that the plastic necklace she was wearing was a wave array invented by Bernard Widrow. It captures conversations and transmits them through a series of processors and wires to her inner ear. She has been deaf since the age of 3, but you'd never know it speaking to her.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.