© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Inventive Bunch Heads to Hall of Fame


MONTAGNE: Fiberglass, the birth control pill, the caterpillar tractor: the men who came up with these revolutionary inventions, will be among those inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. The ceremonies today and tomorrow in Akron, Ohio, will honor inventors, both living and dead.

To find out more about this year's inductees, we turn to Fred Allen, who heads the selection committee.

Why don't we start with one example, and this would be a living inventor. His name is Robert Gore. And he invented Gore-Tex. What exactly is it?

Mr. FRED ALLEN (head of the Selection Committee for the National Inventors Hall of Fame): What it is, is a kind of textile made, basically, out of Teflon. It has pores through it that are many hundreds of times too small to let through water droplets, but are thousands of times too big to prevent water vapor from going through. And there's a very interesting story about how he invented that.

He was working for his father's company, and they made wires and coatings for wires. And he was trying to make, actually a plumber's tape(ph) with a Teflon coating. And he had a sheet of the Teflon material, but he couldn't get it flexible enough. And he got so frustrated that he kind of jerked at it in his hands. And he realized that when he stretched it that way something popped, and it changed its structure and got this porosity. So he had a lucky accident at the heart of the invention. But then he also had the brilliance to realize that he was on to something when it had this unique, unprecedented quality.

MONTAGNE: Of the names of this year's inductees, you've got a couple who are household names; William Upjohn, who invented the dissolvable pill 130 years ago. But I wonder if, when you put them all together, if they all, you know, made money out of them--if their inventions were things that they did well by.

Mr. ALLEN: Well a lot of them have made a great deal of money, especially ones in more recent time. On the other hand, Granville Woods, who invented the railroad telegraph late in the 19th century, which was the first technology that made it possible for moving trains to communicate with other trains and with stations. You were just flying on your own between stations, before then. He is kind of amazing, because he was a black man, born in the 1850s, when the deck was stacked so heavily against anybody black accomplishing anything remotely like what he did.

He had no education after he was ten years old but he became a machinist. He then went to work for railroads and he had inventions involving telephone technology, battery technology, steam boiler technology. He was an inventor of the third rail, that makes our subways work, and had this greatly important invention that got train travel so much safer.

But he had to sign away most of his patent rights, and he died in 1910 almost broke. But we're sure glad to honor him, because it's a remarkable accomplishment.

MONTAGNE: You know, what is so striking about, really this entire list, is when you look at something like the helium neon laser. That seems very esoteric, but it turns out it's a thing that allows us to have checkout scanners.

Mr. ALLEN: Well the reason the Hall of Fame--the National Inventors Hall of Fame--exists is to honor these inventors, to encourage invention and innovation because it's so important, but also just because these people tend not to be known and recognized and appreciated. Yet they do so much that is so important in our everyday lives. Our lives depend on barcode scanners every single day, and therefore they depend on Dr. Ali Javan, and nobody's ever heard of him. And I think it must be pretty amazing to be able to go into the drugstore and buy a chap stick and while you're checking out think, I did that. I made that possible. Not the chap stick, but the way you buy it.

MONTAGNE: And Ali Javan is one of the living inventors, so he in fact could be doing exactly that.

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. He might be doing it at this moment.

MONTAGNE: Fred Allen, thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Fred Allen is head of the selection committee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

This year's honorees will be inducted today and tomorrow in Akron, Ohio.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.