Now there are different ways of reacting to the fact that you've just managed to change mankind for the better and like just about everything else, it comes down to temperament. Take Edwin Howard Armstrong.
He would go on to invent the frequency modulation technique (FM) for radio communication, but his first real break came in 1918, when he invented the superheterodyne circuit, which, it turns out, is a basic component of nearly all modern radio receivers.
On the great night when the old superheterodyne first cracked its way into the world, "Howard burst into the room carrying a box and danced around the room, yelling, 'i've done it! I've done it! I've done it!'" according to a family member present at the time.
It was this sort of thing (the inventions actually, not the great glee he got from inventing them) that eventually got Armstrong inducted, posthumously, into the Inventor's Hall of Fame yesterday. James Hillier, who also got inducted at the ceremonies marking National Inventors Day, seems to take his inventions much more in stride.
"I never thought of myself as an inventor," Hillier said as he waited to receive his award. "I was just working to get something done that was useful and worthwhile." His invention, it turned out, began as an idea on a list of possible projects he could pursue a sa graduate student at the University of Toronto, and ended up as the electron microscope.
"Most of the ideas mentioned just didn't, as they would say now, turn me on," explained Hillier. "I'd never heard of the electron microscope, but I'd liked building microscopes and telescopes as a kid so I thought I'd work on it."
Hillier hastened to point out that he doesn't really think of himself as the inventor of the electron microscope, because the concept was already kicking around. He says he simply took a scientific idea and turned it into a reality.
Working with a colleague, Albert F. Prebus, the young Hillier had a design ready during the Christmas holidays of 1937, and a working model by April. "It was strictly a string and beeswax operation," he said. "A haywired thing. Could never do it now like that. Too much bureaucracy. Too much red tape. It's very hard now to move an invention to the marketplace. It's something I feel very strongly about."
It wasn't so difficult in 1940, when Hillier moved to RCA, where he is currently responsible for research and development. Realizing that "my homemade crude microscope couldn't possibly meet the demand and do everything that's needed," Hillier came up with a commercial design for only $10,000. He then set about making himself an expert in just about every field -- "metallurgy, microbiology, you name it," -- where his invention could possibly be used.
Lewis H. Sarett, on the other hand, had no idea how useful synthetic cortisone could be when he invented it in 1944 at the age of 26. World War II was raging, and his research had been given top priority in the mistaken belief that German pilots were being given cortisone to help them withstand much higher altitudes.
Sarett spent two years patiently developing the 42 separate consecutive chemical reactions that had to take place to result in synthetic cortisone, which had to be developed because cortisone in its natural state exists in quantities much to small to be of any use.
A fire in his laboratory put him in the hospital, and splattered the results of his experiments all over the floor. If his Princeton professor, Everett Wallis, hadn't gone over to soak up as much as he could find with a sponge, the entire experiment would have been lost.
Sarett and his colleagues were "caught absolutely unprepared" when word came from the Mayo Clinic that their drug was proving very helpful in easing the painful inflammation common to patients with rheumatoid arthritis. "It was extremely gratifying, of course," he said. "It was overwhelming -- to do the thing I loved to do and have it proved useful to people. That's not possible in most professions."
What does he think when he reads reports of athletes using steroids to try for bigger muscles, added strength, despite the toll they can take?
"Actually, in a way it's gone full circle," Sarett said."We started work out of the belief that the Germans were trying to make supermen, and now it seems there are athletes trying the same."
Sarett, Hillier, Armstrong and Charles Franklin Kettering (who included among his 140 patents the one covering the selfstarting ignition for cars and who was also inducted posthumously) were all honored at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City. The ceremony was sponsored by the Office itself along with the national Council of Patent Law Associations, the National Inventors Hall of Fame Inc. and the Association for the Advancement of Invention and Innovation -- all of which had representatives who gave speeches even longer than the names of their various organizations.
Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick was there to give the opening remarks at the end of which he said, "In my experience I have found that some of the most significant statements about peace and the relationship between people have come from the pens of scientific geniuses." He then quoted Louis Pasteur, holder of U..s Patent No. 135245, having to do with the brewing of beer and ale: "I believe without a shadow of a doubt that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war. The nations of the earth will ultimately agree not to destroy but to build up."
The reference to the ominous rumblings in the Persian Gulf brought back a world of complications, intrigue and crises that could not be solved by the balance of power in a chemical equation.
The audience that sat so patiently through all the speeches seemed far removed from foreign affairs. There was, in fact, a Chinese delegation, in town to make sense -- if that is humanly possible -- of the American patent system. There was also an enormous number of grandchildren, whose faces shined like the plaque their grandfathers received. And finally, the unknown dreamers, the yet-to-be-recognized, who gleamed with the infallibilty of their causes, and ranged from old to young, the brilliant to the slightly bonkers.
It is everyone's dream, at some point, to come up with it, that one idea, the one that will save the world, make friends and money, change a hod-carrier into a hero. To be the one to laugh at the way things were, knowing that in the corner of the mind, in a pocket of the imagination, lies the inspiration that will change it all.
There are, after all, many adventures in this world. There are men who set sail in wooden ships with canvas sails. And then there are men who invent the Sound-Synchronous Optical Viewer.
The idea came to him 10 years ago, said Lawrence E. McCurdy, a musician and music teacher who lives in Silver Spring. "I was involved in music and in the visual arts and I wanted the total esthetic experience. I started out with a candle in front of the stereo and stared at that for a while. That didn't do much so I put lightbulbs in back of the plants to make shadows on the ceiling. That lasted for a long time. Then a friend of mine looked right into the light bulb and said, 'Wow, I can see Eric Clapton's guitar right in the light bulb! And that is when I thought of it."
And so there was McCurdy, patiently demonstrating the wonders of a pair of earphones hooked up to a pair of glasses with a rainbow-colored mosaic where the lenses would be. Back home, he said, he has a pair where you can fit slides of your favorite vacation into the lenses while listening to your favorite classical record. But the mosaics seem to work better for rock 'n roll.
The Department of Energy was there as well, demonstrating two electric cars -- six of which will be whizzing around Washington in a month. There were representatives from Black and Decker, the tool company, and lots of corporations, and Bhairab C. Bhattacharya, who sat terrified in a corner. "He's afraid of reporters," explained his representative, who proceeded to explain the wonders of the Convection Streaming Galvanic Cell for Controlling the Sex of Offspring -- U.S. Patent No. 4,155,831.
And then there was Kenneth Wilson.
Wilson has The Dream. It's been nearly eight years since he quit his job as a salesman to devote heart, mind and soul and every penny he has in the world, not to mention his wife's pennies, to the development and perfection of the Carriage Cycle.
Round and round he pedaled on his amazing machine, its big white sunshade protecting what looked to be an enormously overgrown tricycle bearing at least three children at any one time. Round and round he went, and then he stopped to talk about its wonders. "It leans as it steers, you see. With this energy business, you can really use it. Bicycles of course, have always had better balance than tricycles, but you can't carry much . Can't go to the 7-11 . Everyone lives near a 7-11 these days. This way you get the best of both"
His dedication is absolute, his devotion is pure. "A lot of it is just a willingness to be embarrassed," said Wilson. And courage? "Sure, you got to have that. How do you get it? Well, you're born with it. I guess I get it from reading westerns too; I like Louis Lamour, I read a lot of westerns. And you have to love something like our Founding Fathers loved something. They put their beliefs on the line. I was real emotional all through '76, thinking about them. So that's what I'm doing, believing in it, putting it on the line."
Several small faces clamor for a ride.
"Excuse me," said Kenneth Wilson. "I have to go make a horse's butt out of myself for a half-hour.'"