Monday, May 07, 2007

Inventor's Hall of Fame Induction

Once a year, Akron's National Inventor's Hall of Fame reinvents itself for a night. Usually the ground floor is the Inventor’s Workshop, a hands-on science museum catering heavily to kids but suffering somewhat from the grey industrial basement feel of the place. But once a year the room goes glam, with formal table settings, stage lighting and drapes to warm up the unfinished concrete décor. This is the induction ceremony. Once again Prof. W scored tickets, I rented a tux and we attended the coolest Hall of Fame ceremony on the planet.

What follows is less a play-by-play than a survey of the random moments that most stood out in more or less the order they happened.

  • I overheard a couple of conversations about the study showing that U Akron leads the state in universities transferring research to commercial applications. The theme was frustration that the Beacon didn’t cover the story.

  • The music for this thing always starts out unbearable, then gets kind of cool. They bring in an elite teen singing group, but often – and such was the case here – a song is compose especially for the event. The theme for the evening was The Fire of Genius. I had kind of noticed two odd pipe contraptions hanging from the ceiling among the spotlights. One sappy pop song about invention later, nozzles on the pipes erupted in flame. OK, that was kind of cool. Then the student retire to a balcony where they do fill music as each inductee heads to the stage.

  • The MC is Neil Conan from NPR. They get some media personality every year, and often it’s an NPR person so you spend the night fascinated that a familiar voice is now accompanied by a face.

  • Conan gives an introductory speech about the march, or run, or screaming pelting race of technology. One of many factoids: in the next year people will generate 1.5 X 1018 bits of new information. Puts my impossibly long posts into perspective, doesn’t it?

  • We are introduced to the representative of the Patent Office who will help give the awards. Usually it’s the head of the Patent Office who looks every inch a Bush political appointee. He’s busy so this year we get Margaret Peterline, his Deputy Director, who looks very much like Donna Moss, but no doubt has the politics of Ainsley Hayes.

  • Reading from a teleprompter is a skill. The skill is in reading with out it looking like you are reading. I didn’t realize it before, but in observing contrast between the clearly practiced Neil Conan and the truly horrible Ms. Peterlin, it becomes clear this is a skill. Ms. Peterlin actually elicits titters and murmurs of sympathy.

  • While the official theme is “Fire of Genius” the inductees return to three themes of their own: failure is inevitable, luck is indispensable, and you better be prepared for resistance.

  • John Franz, inducted for RoundUp herbicide, is the first to hit on the themes. He had failed for nine years to find an herbicide that breaks down quickly and doesn’t poison animals. (That’s how RoundUp is advertised; I make no claims as to the accuracy of the claim.) The compound in RoundUp had been discovered twenty years earlier, but he was the first to discover in it the properties he was looking for.

  • Next up is two guys whose independent work led to the development of the MRI – Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield. Sadly Lauterbur died in late March, so his son and daughter accept the award for him. Watching the man’s daughter eulogize her father while visibly struggling to keep her emotions in check was one of what Conen later called “Goosebump Moments.”

  • In all the induction ceremonies I’ve seen, it’s consistently amazing how many of the inventers are genuinely humble and seem themselves awed by what they have done. They show an interview of Lauterbur in which he says “two things really gratify me. One is the respect of my peers for what I’ve done. The other is people spontaneously saying ‘Thank you for saving my daughter’s life.’ It’s hard to be blaze about that.”

  • By the way, the medallion is new this year. Lincoln is on it because he is the only U.S. President to hold a patent. The medallion was created by a sculptor who just retired from the U.S. Mint.

  • The Hall is gradually making its way through the people responsible for the internet. This year they induct the two men responsible for inventing digital packet, one of who – Paul Baran – is still alive. His best line: “Good technology disappears – you take it for granted.”

  • Emmett Chappelle is inducted for discovering the chemical basis for bioluminescence and developing ways to harness it for medical applications. He was raised the son of African-American sharecroppers during the Depression. He fought and was wounded as a member of an all-black infantry regiment in World War II. He came home to a G.I. Bill college education which he parlayed into a graduate degree, and a career with NASA. In arguments with my conservative friends, the GI Bill and the space program are two of my favorite examples of government programs that were crucial to the American century.

  • David Metcalf invented Ethernet when working for Xerox and went on to found 3Com. Again, the inductee talks about luck – in 1973 he and a colleague were, as he puts it, the first people on the planet given the task of networking personal computers.

  • Metcalf is sold on the Hall as an institution. He recounts an hour conversation in which past inductee Rangaswamy Srinivasan recounted how he developed laser strategy. Says Metcalf, “That conversation was worth the trip.” I’m sure it was. While the Hall arranges for the returning inductees to do some outreach to schools, I wish there was more public access to Induction Weekend. Inventors aren’t the only ones who can be inspired by inventors.

  • By the way, the Hall, the Patent Office and various partner organizations are putting together a public service ad campaign to encourage invention and study of science and engineering. Hopefully they will post some of the ads on the website as they are fairly clever, showing kids inventing impossible things like the cat magnet.

  • My all time favorite inductee is Kary Mullis who discovered the polymerase chain reaction – a way to turn an immeasurably small sample of DNA into a sample large enough to analyze. We saw him inducted and he was certainly one of the funniest speakers ever at the event. He fidgets at the podium like a five-year-old kid and talks with something of a California surfer drawl. He’s back to introduce one of his heroes Leroy Wood who had invented a succession of DNA sequencers. DNA is another field where the Hall is putting the various inventors responsible in the Hall.

  • Wood’s basic approach was looking at biology as an information science. As a result, he has more than once assembled multidisciplinary teams – biologists, engineers, computer guys, etc. He’s another one who had to overcome serious resistance, in his case from traditional biologists.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, HOF induction is one of my favorite nights of the year. I could go on – may be later I will. But this gives you a taste of what the night is like. And unlike Dyer, I do it without a Paris Hilton joke.

Note: I have some graphics to upload and links to add, but lots to do today, so this will do for now.


Jill said...

Scott - this is amazing. Thanks. Do you know, when the Cleveland+ thing came out, the very first thing I thought of was the Inventors HOF.

Cee Jay said...

Wow, what a great experience to have. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Village Green said...

Why isn't the induction taped and put on public access cable? Then stored in the archives for visiting scholars ?

I'm not thrilled by the honoring of the guy who gave us the so-called harmless herbicide. Some intensive aerobic weeding is much better for both humans and environment.

Scott Piepho said...

It is taped. What they do with the tape I don't know, but they had video going.

As for RoundUp, I was philosophical. If you assume that people will use herbicide, it certainly is an advance to create one that leaves less of a footprint.

akros13 said...

The ceremony runs in an edited form on PBS 45&49 on Saturday, June 2, 7 pm.