Notes from the Director: National Inventors' Month :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

August is National Inventors’ Month and the Lemelson Center has been celebrating with a number of high-profile events. Established in 1998 by the Academy of Applied Science, the United Inventors Association, and Inventors Digest magazine, National Inventors’ Month recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit of independent inventors, and the Lemelson Center’s programs highlight that ordinary people, regardless of circumstances, can be inventors, or at least take part in the invention process.

Often overlooked on these occasions, however, are the little-known contributions of the rich and famous. Take the case of musicians and movie stars, for example. Even though they are creative in their own fields, it never occurs to us that they could also be inventors. We were all shocked to learn of Michael Jackson’s sudden death. But, as we said our farewells to this amazing performer, we were in for another surprise: he had a patent. Awarded jointly to him and to two of his costume-men in 1993, the patent described specially designed shoes that gave the illusion of his leaning beyond his center of gravity. The move and the associated gadget were created for his 1988 music video, Smooth Criminal, something to upstage his unique (I can’t say patented) "moonwalk," perhaps.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised by Jackson’s invention; he was a known technological enthusiast. Consider, for example, that widely publicized video arcade he installed at Neverland Ranch. Jackson was a gamer. Still, I was somewhat taken aback by reports that he once planned to build a fifty-foot robot likeness of himself that would roam Las Vegas publicizing his acts, an image as much threatening as it was peculiar. That he not only invented but also sought and earned a patent is no mystery. Protecting an invention would come naturally to a man who zealously guarded his music rights and was reported to have acquired the copyrights to the Beatles’ songs. Then again, perhaps being certified by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a bona fide inventor conferred a kind of status and satisfaction that even Hollywood could not bestow.

Jackson was far from the only "patented" celebrity performer. For instance, his friend Marlon Brando also dabbled in invention, at least toward the end of his life when he earned several patents related to a device for tuning drumheads. One can envision him on some beach in Tahiti, turning out invention ideas to the beat of bongos. The ranks of improbable inventors also include two of the Marx brothers, who showed that even comic geniuses could take to the serious task of invention. Unlike Jackson’s and Brando’s, however, their inventions did not relate specifically to entertainment, at least not directly. Zeppo (Herbert), considered the mechanical genius of the family, patented a cardiac pulse-rate monitor, while Gummo (Milton) earned his patent for "Improvements in Packing-Racks," something that undoubtedly came in handy for life on the road.

Patriotism motivated other performers. During World War II, the stunning Austrian-born movie star Hedy Lamarr approached her Hollywood neighbor, the avant-garde composer George Antheil, about contributing ideas to the National Inventors Council, established under the National Bureau of Standards to solicit inventions from U.S. citizens for the war effort. She even thought of cashing in her acting career to become an inventor. Their 1941 patent for "frequency hopping" was applied to secret communications and to radio-guided torpedoes, among other weapons. Eventually, some of this technology found its way into Wi-Fi networking and wireless telephony.

I could go on and on. These are just a few examples from a long list of known celebrity inventors. Others can be found through Wikipedia, Google Patent Search, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sites, among other online sources. (Be advised, though, that in some cases the patents will be under the entertainers’ real names and not their stage names.) So as we honor the anonymous and ordinary inventor this month, let us not forget the unheralded role of others. Michael Jackson serves to remind us that anybody--even the very rich and the very famous--can invent.

Best regards till next month,
Arthur Molella
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

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