2012 Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees

May 8, 2012

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Last week, the National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted 10 innovators in medical, industrial and commercial fields. Among them: the creator of the laser printer and a co-founder of Apple Inc.

Akira Endo: Mevastatin

Akira Endo pioneered research into a new class of molecules that now form a hugely successful category of cholesterol-lowering drugs. In the 1970s, Endo, then of the Sankyo Company, was investigating fungi’s effects on cholesterol synthesis. He theorized that fungi would inhibit cholesterol synthesis (the body’s production of “bad” cholesterol) and studied 6,392 fungi over two and a half years before discovering compactin. From this, he was able to identify statins, drugs that have revolutionized the way that doctors treat congenital heart disease. During his acceptance speech, Endo reported that he was recently diagnosed with high cholesterol, but his doctor told him, “We have very good drugs to treat that,” as Forbes reports.

Barbara Liskov: Programming Languages and System Design

Barbara Liskov is a pioneer in the design of computer programming languages. After being turned down for graduate studies at Princeton in the early 1960s because she was a woman, Liskov began working for the Mitre Corporation as a computer programmer, when the discipline was still young. At Mitre she researched computer systems and natural language translation, which led to her study of artificial intelligence (AI) at Stanford. Her work there, and her subsequent position at MIT, allowed her to perform groundbreaking research on programming languages, data abstraction and software engineering.

C. Kumar N. Patel: Carbon Dioxide Laser

In 1964, C. Kumar N. Patel, working at Bell Labs, helped invent the carbon dioxide laser -- one of the earliest gas lasers. Carbon dioxide lasers were able to exhibit much higher efficiency, while also emitting powerful, focused laser beams. Patel’s work on the CO2 laser allowed various industries to access more powerful laser technology, leading to uses in industrial manufacturing and fabrication, engraving and surgery.

Lubomyr Romankiw and David Thompson: Magnetic Thin-Film Head

IBM researchers Lubomyr Romankiw and David Thompson are credited with inventing the first practical magnetic thin-film storage heads, creating new designs for both read and write heads along with a new fabrication process. Their three patents helped magnetic disk storage devices become smaller and more robust, as well as allowing manufacturers to produce them more cheaply. These inventions are credited with helping create an industry worth more than $35 billion in annual sales today.

Gary Starkweather: Laser Printer

Gary Starkweather's laser printer was the first to print any images that could be created on a computer. While working as a researcher for Xerox PARC, Starkweather was struck by the idea that he could use computers and lasers to create original images instead of just copies. Upper management didn’t agree, so he spent the next several months covertly building a laser printer prototype. Eventually, Xerox saw the wisdom in Starkweather’s idea and began marketing the Xerox 9700 laser printing system, which would become one of Xerox’s best-selling products. Starkweather went on to develop display technology utilities for Apple Inc.

Alejandro Zaffaroni: Controlled Drug Delivery Systems

Uruguayan Alejandro Zaffaroni is a biotechnology innovator whose early concepts for transdermal patches led to new drug delivery systems. In the 1940s, Zaffaroni moved to the United States to study endocrinology, during which time he learned how the body releases hormones at a regular rate to affect behavior and performance. He then worked at Syntex Corporation in Mexico City, where he began research based on this knowledge to develop new systems of drug delivery. Zaffaroni eventually created his own company, ALZA Corp., to produce oral and transdermal controlled drug delivery systems, part of the $10 to $15 billion drug delivery pharmaceutical industry.

Posthumous Recognition

Steve Jobs (1955-2011): iPod User Interface

Steve Jobs (pictured), who passed away last year, co-founded Apple Computer in 1976. He and co-founder Steve Wozniak -- inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2000 -- together developed the Apple I and Apple II personal computers, pushing computer design to be faster, more compact and more affordable for a wider range of customers. After several commercial misses in the early 1980s, Jobs left as Apple's CEO and founded software company NeXT. He spent part of the next decade funding Pixar, which resulted in the 1995 release of Toy Story, the first entirely computer-animated film and the first in a string of box-office hits for the company. After Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, he helped usher in new, forward-thinking products such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes Music Store, iMac and more. At the time of his death, Jobs was listed as creator or co-creator on more than 300 different patents.

Dennis Gabor (1900-1979): Electron Holography

Hungarian Dennis Gabor is best known for his research in electron optics that led to the invention of holography. Gabor was working in Germany when Hitler came to power, but was able to flee to Britain in 1933 to escape oppression and continue his work. This led to his theory of using a mercury arc lamp to make twinned images that would appear as single, three-dimensional images. It would take until the 1960s and the introduction of lasers to create true holograms, which now appear on credit cards and trading cards for security and aesthetic purposes.

Maria Telkes (1900-1995): Solar Thermal Storage Systems

Another Hungarian, Maria Telkes was a highly respected innovator in solar energy. In the late 1940s, she was asked to design a heating system for an experimental house in Dover, Mass., which she accomplished by storing the solar energy in chemical form, rather than the then-common technique of heating rocks or other solids. From there, Telkes proceeded to patent many other solar-powered devices, including energy storage systems for the space program.

Further details about all of the 2012 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees are available HERE.

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