Who Broke Thomas Edison’s Patent Record?

In a season where those early decision acceptance letters have come from colleges, it’s worth reminding high school students and parents alike that a stellar high school record is not always a pre-requisite to success. I’ve long been interested in the entrepreneurial mind. In fact, I have interviewed over 400 CEOs, executives and entrepreneurs. I find their stories inspirational and share their achievements at Profiles in Success, a website designed to inspire current and future small-business owners. ThomasEdisonBlogImage.2015.12.28

Ashlee Vance’s “How an F Student Became America’s Most Prolific Inventor” recently caught my attention. It describes how Lowell Wood, who struggled mightily through high school, recently broke Thomas’ Edison’s patent record and helped defend our nation from threats from the Soviet Union.

At age 74, Wood has been an inventor-in-residence at Intellectual Ventures, a technology research and patent firm, for about a decade. He admits to Vance that he’s never been good with the ordinary aspects of life, like paying bills. She writes that “he’s too consumed with inventing solutions to the world’s problems. Ideas–really big ideas–keep bombarding his mind.” And she quotes Wood as saying, “It’s like the rain forest. Every afternoon, the rains come.”

According to Vance, Wood is now the most prolific inventor in U.S. history with 1,085 utility patents. An astrophysicist, as well as a self-trained paleontologist and computer scientist, he has developed products ranging from anti-concussion helmets and drug-delivery systems to superefficient nuclear reactors. In the 1980s, he developed space lasers to shield the U.S. from Soviet missiles as part of the “Star Wars” program.

And because Wood has more than 3,000 inventions awaiting review by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it will certainly be some time before anyone can unseat him as our nation’s top inventor.

In her article, Vance lists some of Wood’s recent projects–“a laser-based shaver and a microwave that can customize its power for individual items on a plate, so meat, vegetables, and starches all come out at the same temperature, a low-power clothes dryer, automated anti-collision systems for cars, and a large thermos for preserving vaccines.” And, she quotes Nathan Myhrvold, IV’s co-founder and CEO and former chief technology officer at Microsoft as saying, “At least half of his activities–maybe more–are trying to help the least fortunate people on earth. He’s really good at it. His ideas have already saved tons of lives and have the potential of saving enormously more.”

Wood says reading a lot fuels his inventions. It probably also doesn’t hurt to have people like Bill Gates to brainstorm with. According to Gates, “Lowell is the definition of a polymath. It’s not just how much he knows, it’s the way his brain works. He gives himself the freedom to look at problems in a different way from everyone else. To me, that is the mark of a great inventor.”

As we embark on a new year, let’s all take a page from Wood’s playbook. Let’s appreciate that there is never just one route to a successful and fulfilling career and try looking at problems in a different way from everyone else.

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