National Inventor’s Month: You Can Make It If You Try!
Mark Esser, Writer/Editor, Public Affairs Office
Depending on whom you ask, May (or August or April, it would be great if someone were to standardize this … we’re going with May) is National Inventor’s Month. Lots of people have dreams of being a famous inventor. Even I’ve had “ideas” for inventions before.
For instance, back in the 1990s, after finally finding my keys in the refrigerator more than once and spending more time looking for the remote than I care to admit, I thought it would be great if I could build a little alarm that you could attach to such easily misplaced items that would beep incessantly until you were able to find them.
Owing partly to the technological limitations of the day, but mostly to my own lack of skill (and a good deal of old-fashioned laziness), that idea never became reality.
I understand that some genius somewhere finally did build one, though. Congratulations!
Anyway, while I still have the occasional crackpot idea, I don’t think there’s any danger of you seeing me on any of the many inventor-themed reality shows on television today — provided you can find your remote.
NIST is literally littered with people who, most unlike me, are actually inventive. In celebration of National Inventor’s Month and Public Service Recognition Week, which also happens to be in May, I’d like to introduce you to Jacob Rabinow (1910–1999), one of the most creative and prolific inventors ever to work for the United States government.
Rabinow was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1910. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, he and his parents fled first to Siberia and then to China in 1919. When his father died in 1921, the family immigrated to New York.
After earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York, Rabinow joined NIST as a junior mechanical engineer. At NIST, his inventive genius found a nurturing and supportive environment.
Rabinow played critical roles in the development of NIST wartime inventions such as the non-rotating proximity fuze and the “Bat” guided missile. He received his first patent in 1947 for a camera able to record the flight path of airplanes. By the end of his life he held 230 U.S. patents and 70 foreign patents.
Among these were:
- mechanisms for the automatic regulation of clocks and watches;
- an automatic letter-sorting machine for the U.S. Post Office;
- the magnetic particle clutch, which is used in automobiles, airplanes, servo-mechanisms, and many other machines;
- the world’s first magnetic disc memory;
- the “best-match” principle in optical and magnetic character reading machines; and
- the straight-line phonograph.
In addition to his technical work, Rabinow delivered hundreds of talks on technologies and inventions. He was a Regent’s Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, a frequent guest on radio and television programs, and an author of many papers. His full-length book, Inventing for Fun and Profit, was published in 1989 by San Francisco Press.
The Jacob Rabinow Applied Research Award, an annual internal NIST award first presented in 1975, is granted to employees for outstanding achievements in the practical application of the results of scientific engineering research. NIST chemical engineer Richard Gates, who wrote our May 2 blog, was the 2015 recipient of this prestigious award for his work with the U.S. Mint.
And, as I said, NIST is brimming with other inventive people as well, just look at all the technologies we have available for licensing.
Since that first great innovator discovered the secret was to “bang the rocks together,” we have, as a species, been defined by our inventiveness. In fact, being without much in the way of speed or claws or teeth, our inventiveness has often been cited as one of the key reasons we’re still around. Maybe that’s why so many people want to be inventors — they want to be part of that legacy. That drive to innovate is what let us master the rock and many other things.
So, to all you inventors out there, it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, keep dreaming, keep doing, and know that you are keeping company with some of the greatest minds in history. We can’t all be Jacob Rabinow or Richard Gates, but you’ll never invent anything unless you keep trying.
Happy National Inventor’s Month!
This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
About the author
Mark Esser is a writer in the NIST public affairs office and a contributing editor to Taking Measure. He also manages NIST’s social media accounts, leads tours, and voices the Mole and Major Uncertainty for the League of SI Superheroes animated episodes.