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Big Blue researchers win inventor laurels

A trio of researchers whose work at an IBM center led to a procedure for laser eye surgery will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Three IBM researchers on Thursday will share an honor with the father of aspirin, when they're inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their pioneering work on laser eye surgery.

Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James Wynne and Samuel Blum invented the excimer laser surgical procedure, which laid the groundwork for LASIK surgery, a phenomenon that's enabled at least 5 million people to ditch their glasses and contacts.

The surgery involves using ultraviolet lasers to reshape the cornea to treat nearsightedness. The trio began their work on laser surgery in the 1970s while working at IBM. The company received a patent on the procedure in 1988.

The researchers were doing basic science research using lasers at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center when they discovered that the ultraviolet excimer laser they were using could make clean incisions on animal tissue--in their case, a leftover turkey bone from Thanksgiving dinner.

"It was a serendipitous discovery," Wynne said in an interview from the awards ceremony. "Our immediate manager thought it was good as long as it wasn't the main thing we were doing with our time."

They later refined the surgical procedure and reached out to the medical community. In 1995, the technique gained FDA approval for use on the eyes.

The researchers are being honored Thursday at the National Inventors Hall of Fame ceremony at the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif. Other inductees will include Raymond Kurzweil, inventor of the Kurzweil Reading Machine; Nils Bohlin, creator of the 3-point safety belt; and Felix Hoffman, the late chemist who patented aspirin 102 years ago.

"When I saw who else was being honored, I became fantastically excited," said Wynne, who has worked at IBM's labs since 1971. Srinivasan and Blum have since retired.

Past recipients of the honor include Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers.