How do you become one of the world’s greatest living inventors? By being “always angry,” says Shuji Nakamura, and “asking why, why, why?” His boss told him there could be no such thing blue light-emitting diodes, and “I became so angry at my boss I told him to let me do it.” He found a way, and thereby made possible every flat-screen display and LED light bulb in existence. He won a Nobel Prize for that late last year, and last night he was inducted into the National Hall of Fame, which recognizes the greatest inventors who hold U.S. patents.
Another inductee was Jaap Haartsen, who developed the Bluetooth wireless technology we all use to connect our phones to our ears and our cars and now our watches, and to connect so many of our other devices to one another, too. He compared inventing to making music. “When you build something, invent something, everything fits together” to make a kind of deeply satisfying harmony, he said. Yet as someone who has done as much as anyone living to tether us online, he also talked of the virtue of disconnecting. Get out into nature with everything unplugged, he urged the audience at the Washington, D.C., induction ceremony.
Kristina Johnson and the late Gary Sharp, before they ever met, had a lot in common with each other and with probably almost no one else alive: “We each separately made holograms as teenagers,” she said. Later, he became her graduate student at the University of Colorado (she says she got a Ph.D. because she felt she had to to get ahead as a woman in engineering and because “I just don’t like to be told what to do”). They went on to create the technology that makes digital 3D movies possible.
Disclosure: I am very much involved myself in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a nonprofit organization. I am its chairman of the board.
Ioannis Yannas and the late John Burke developed the first reproducible regenerated skin, which has saved the lives of thousands of burn victims. George Alcorn led breakthroughs in X-ray technology that “gave NASA X-ray vision,” as he put it, while working at companies in the 1960s where he was often the only black employee. And Mary-Dell Chilton created the first genetically modified plant (a tobacco plant). As one of the pioneers of GMOs she has led the way to greatly improved agricultural productivity–and thus made it easier to feed the world–yet she felt she had to close her acceptance remarks by plaintively saying, “It is my greatest hope that we will see acceptance of this technology in my lifetime.”
This year’s deceased inductees were Edith Clarke, who developed a pathbreaking early graphical calculator; Marion Donovan, for a waterproof diaper cover that became the predecessor to disposable diapers; Charles Drew, the father of modern blood plasma preservation technology; Thomas Jennings, the first African-American patent holder, who invented a method of dry cleaning in 1821; Paul MacCready, who built and flew the Gossamer Condor and the Gossamer Albatross; and Stanford Ovshinsky, a high school dropout who gave the world the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery.
How can you become an inventor great enough to join those ranks? Well, Kristina Johnson has an invention she’d really like to see you make happen. She has been spurred by her passion for fighting global climate change to move from 3D technology to running a business, Enduring Hydro, that modernizes hydroelectric facilities. She says she really, really wants an app that will tell you just how much energy you’re using, and all the emissions you’re creating, in everything you do every day, from driving in your car to turning on the lights at home. No one has invented it yet.