Jerome Lemelson – known to his friends and family as “Jerry” – believed invention and innovation were key components of the American dream. The holder of more than 600 patents, Lemelson and his remarkably creative intellect touched almost every facet of our every day lives. One of the century's most prolific inventors, Lemelson received an average of one patent a month for more than 50 years – all on his own, without support from established research institutions or corporate research and development departments.
Automated manufacturing systems and bar code readers, automatic teller machines and cordless phones, cassette players and camcorders, fax machines and personal computers – even crying baby dolls derived from Lemelson's innovations. A universal robot that could measure, weld, rivet, transport and even inspect for quality control utilized a new technology: machine vision. This was his breakthrough invention and the one of which he was most proud, despite the hundreds of others he produced during his 45-year career.
He could see two diverse things that you would never see a connection between them, and he could see that there was a connection and that when you made that connection you had something totally new that didn’t exist." – Dorothy Lemelson
Jerry saw success throughout his career, licensing flexible manufacturing systems in the 1960s, magnetic tape heads for Sony Walkman in the the 1970s, and key components of the personal computer in the 1980s. But it was with his licensing program on a number of several key patents related to machine vision and flexible manufacturing systems that brought great financial success in the 1990s. With the financial abilty to make his dreams about helping promote invention and innovation a reality, Jerry and his wife, Dorothy, began a program to inspire and educate the next generation of inventors and to help provide them with the resources to turn their ideas into invention-based businesses and commercial technologies. With this in mind, the Lemelsons put in place the initial programs of The Lemelson Foundation, with the belief that the children of future generations in the US would aspire to be inventors, and have the potential to turn their aspirations into reality and improve lives.
Jerome ("Jerry") Lemelson was born in Staten Island, NY on July 18, 1923. Lemelson, whose role model was Thomas Edison, was one of the most prolific American inventors of all time. He amassed over 600 patents in a myriad of fields from medical and industrial technologies to gadgets and toys. A consummate inventor, he even slept with a notebook next to his bed to record the endless ideas he dreamt during the night.
As a child Lemelson was captivated by airplanes and technology – both of which would later influence his education and career. He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and a master’s in industrial engineering from New York University, graduating in 1951 after having taken time off to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
In 1950, Lemelson began filing his first patents. At $30 an application fee, he was producing patents at one a month, though he concedes this wasn’t his full- time occupation until 1957, when he relinquished his engineering position. As a novice inventor, a majority of his patents were for toys – such as a toy cap similar to the propeller beanie (for which he was awarded his first patent in 1953), a Velcro“ ping – pong ball target game and a crying baby doll – because they were lucrative.
Jerry saw the world essentially as a series of problems to be solved, that there were things that didn’t work as well, they should work better. They should work more efficiently, they should be safer. All he thought about was inventing." – Robert Lemelson
His breakthrough invention, and the one for which he was most proud, was a universal robot that could measure, weld, rivet, transport and inspect for quality control – capabilities made possible by machine vision, a new technology that used computers to analyze digitized images captured from a video camera. Lemelson refined this invention and filed a 150 page patent application on Christmas Eve, 1954, for “combination tools.” Today this concept, machine vision, is used by automotive and electronic companies the world over for automated precision manufacturing.
Lemelson’s patents soon spanned various fields – including many for industrial automation – and have played an integral part in products and technologies we use every day, such as fax transmission; VCRs; portable tape players; camcorders; and the bar code scanner. Other inventions include the illuminated highway marker; a talking thermometer; a video telephone; a credit verification device; an automated warehouse system; and a patient monitoring system.
Among his inventions, that which had the greatest impact on society was his magnetic tape drive mechanism. Lemelson first struck on the idea of using magnetic tape to store images when he and his wife were doing a manual search at the United States Patent Office. Frustrated by the daunting task, he began to think of ways to mechanize the system. The result was his video filing system, for which he filed a patent application in 1955. The video filing system relied on magnetic or videotape reels to record documents, with the capability of being read from stop – frame images on a television monitor. Lemelson also devised a mechanism to operate the tape, which later became the primary component of audiocassette and videocassette recorders. In 1974, his licensed his patent for a miniature cassette tape drive to Sony, who later incorporated it into their Sony Walkman®, paving the way for a new generation of portable technologies.
Lemelson wrote and filed a majority of his patent applications himself, including all the required legal and market research. After several companies declined interest in Lemelson’s inventions, he established the Licensing Management Corporation in the late 1960s to market his own inventions, in addition to those of other independent inventors.
A champion of the independent inventor, Lemelson has challenged many companies for patent infringement or incorporating certain inventions of his into new designs without licensing them. Lemelson first encountered this when he shared his idea for a cut-out mask design on the back of cereal boxes. The cereal company expressed disinterest for the design. Yet, a few years later they began manufacturing cereal boxes with cut-out masks. Though Lemelson had filed for a patent previously, his case was dismissed.
Lemelson appeared in court many times to protect his inventions, sometimes winning credit and royalties due, other times losing the suit. In 1975, he joined the Patent and Trademark Office Advisory Committee to help improve the patent system.
Lemelson married Dorothy "Dolly" Ginsberg in 1954. Together they raised two sons, Eric and Robert. As an interior designer, Mrs. Lemelson supported the family as Lemelson started his career as an inventor. The Lemelsons first resided in Metuchen, New Jersey, followed by Princeton, NJ and finally Incline Village, NV.
In 1993, the Lemelsons established the Lemelson Foundation to inspire the next generation of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs in the United States. The Foundation has developed several programs intended to motivate and prepare young people to create, develop and commercialize new technologies; and to increase public awareness of the critical role that inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs play in sustaining and strengthening America's economic vitality and shaping and improving our daily lives. In 2002, the Lemelson Foundation launched an International Program. (For more information about the establishment of the Foundation, see Our History.)
Jerry wanted Americans to understand and appreciate the contributions of inventors whose work leads to technologies that improve our lives. Above all, he wanted young people to understand and experience the spark of insight and creativity that forms the core of the process of invention." – Eric Lemelson
Diagnosed with liver cancer in 1996, Lemelson continued to invent, concentrating even more on medical technologies, particularly those that could be used for cancer treatment. Lemelson died on October 1, 1997. His innovative ideas never ceased, nor could his illness hinder his drive to invent – he submitted almost 40 patent applications during his last year.
Click here for “Jerome Lemelson: Independent Inventor," a biography by The Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center written after the passing of Jerome Lemelson, celebrating his life and achievements.