- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

Pity Steve Wozniak. The iconic inventor who helped start the computer revolution with the introduction of Apple II in 1977 can't go to any high-tech convention and, like a regular person, ask a simple question without generating guffaws.
"People will think I'm dumb when I ask, 'How does this work?'" he said with a laugh at Tuesday's reception in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Museum. The museum is heralding a new exhibit, sponsored by Ohio's National Inventors Hall of Fame, of key documents and patents from the office's 200-year history.
The reception marked the start of a two-day blitz honoring American ingenuity and creative enterprise in the fields of science and engineering that brings together in Washington this week a remarkable assembly of talent. The 37 Hall of Fame inductees in attendance nearly all of them patent holders included numerous National Medal of Technology winners and two Nobel Prize laureates.
The inductees included such people as designers and inventors of the CT scanner, the implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, excimer laser surgery, fiber optics, Prozac and Scotchgard.
To paraphrase President Kennedy in a long-ago speech honoring Nobelists at a White House dinner, the gathering may be one of the greatest displays of brainpower since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. It just happens, of course, that the patent office was established in Jefferson's administration and he was the first patent examiner.
This, and the opportunity to see a sneak preview of "About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson (scheduled for public release in December) after dinner at the Motion Picture Association with Jack Valenti as host. Such breaks in their normal routine were greatly welcomed by Mr. Wozniak and others in the select group.
Mr. Valenti, of course, is very much into copyrights of intellectual property, and Mr. Wozniak has spoken out against downloading music from the Web site Napster. Mr. Wozniak said his notoriety has been useful in urging young people "to respect the idea of invention" and to get them to believe in their own abilities.
It was the first time in the past year, the personal computer inventor said, that he had traveled out of California. He has been hard at work on a new invention another revolutionary device for home and office due out early next year, the nature of which he wasn't about to disclose.
"I'm never into big things, just small things," Mr. Wozniak hinted jovially, handing around a CEO card with a mysterious logo reading, "Wheels of Zeus."
The chance to mingle with other honorees thrilled him. "Once I get more free time, I'd love to visit them in their homes," he said. "Some of us famous for an important invention can't really talk about it."
"It's awesome," volunteered pioneering acoustical engineer James West, seeing so many of modern technology's heroes in one place. Their schedule included a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday by Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property James Rogan; a round-table discussion on the future of technology yesterday at the Department of Commerce, led by Richard Russell, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology; and a dinner in their honor last night at the Library of Congress.
If there is any one lesson to be learned from the group, it could be that a life of the mind, earnestly pursued and encouraged in most cases by corporate and foundation backing is undaunted by age. Many in the group, whose ages range from 52 to 91, remain active in their fields.
Mr. Wozniak began his career at age 13 when he built his first computer, went on to design calculator chips for Hewlett Packard, then founded Apple Computer with Steve Jobs in 1977.
At 71, Mr. West, a native of Prince Edward County, Va., who invented the electret microphone with German-born Gerhard Sessler, has just joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University after spending much of his career with Bell Labs. The microphone device is a crucial component of all cell phones, computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and audio equipment worldwide.
"It makes the world work," he said only half-jokingly of his invention.
A mere 59, physicist James Wynne, who, along with two colleagues, brought into being the so-called lasik (laser in-situ Keratomileusis) and prk (photorefractive keratectomy) surgery methods through the invention of the excimer laser, has just been issued a new patent for laser treatments in dermatology.
"It's a concept to get the skin to look younger," he explained.
Cosmetic enhancement isn't really the dream of this scientist, who said he has not had the lasik procedure that would make his contact lens unnecessary, but he is getting his two grown children to have it done to correct their nearsightedness. It's a surgical method using a short-pulse ultraviolet laser in a highly controlled fashion to change permanently the shape of the cornea, the clear covering of the front of the eye.
"Five million people around the world have had it done," he volunteered proudly of the breakthrough application of lasers developed at IBM and its Watson Research Center, where he was manager of the laser physics and chemistry group. His longtime hero is Louis Pasteur, the Frenchman whose U.S. patent for pasteurization is part of the new exhibit, Mr. Wynne noted enthusiastically.
In addition to corporate support and often firm family support, there is another lesson, too, in seeing how inventions often come about through the most accidental and seemingly unlikely means.
The history of the excimer laser surgery method basically began with the leftovers from a Thanksgiving turkey back in 1981. Mr. Wynne and a colleague, talking about how a laser made holes in plastic, wondered, "Why not tissue?" he recalled in explaining how "I didn't invent the laser, but we adapted it in new ways. I was thinking brain surgery." In the first of many experiments, they "zapped" a turkey cartilage to test the idea's possibilities.
The invention of Scotchgard, the fabric protector, has a similar story behind it, as related by Patsy Sherman, one of the few women in about 150 whose names are in the Inventors Hall of Fame. Retired from the Minneapolis firm of 3M, where she and fellow inventor Sam Smith were chemists, she had been hired temporarily to help solve a problem with the fluoropolymers found in jet aircraft fuel hoses.
"We knew they were good for hosing, but they got cold in the sky and cracked," she said. Then, accidentally, one time they splashed some of the latex material on a pair of sneakers and discovered that nothing would wet those spots.
"We knew that since tennis shoes didn't fly, the stuff had a better use," she said, adding that "the best part of the story is that I got to keep my job for 40 years." (Recently, 3M altered the long-standing Scotchgard formula for environmental concerns, but the product remains available.)
Technology does not always follow a sure course. Glitches happen. Things got off to a slow start Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Rogan told reception guests with a chuckle, "because someone forgot to plug in the microphone."
Standing with the other inventors a semicircle in front of the podium, Mr. West smiled.


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