Inventors

Necessity is the mother of invention. I want to photograph the rest of the family.

Inventor Portrait: Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)

July 3, 2013

I’m sad to learn that Douglas Engelbart, father of the computer mouse, passed away today. I spent an afternoon with him and his wife Karen in 2009 photographing him at home and work as part of my inventor portraits project. We talked about his invention, and next generation navigation like touch screens. He was charming, even flirted with my assistant. I will have more thoughts to share on him later, but for now here is a link to the New York Times obituary and a few photos from my shoot with him.

Inventor Portrait: Randall Olsen

May 16, 2013

I try to find a broad category of inventors for this series, including small entrepreneurs and successful legends. So when I read about some of the technology being invented by the Navy in their SPAWAR division, I thought it would be really cool to include some military technology in the project.

When I initially reached out to the Navy, I thought it was a longshot that I could get access and permission to photograph one of their inventors. But ultimately the Navy turned out to be one of the most supportive organizations I’ve reached out to. And their level of organization was unequaled. The whole shoot was a great experience.

They put me in touch with Randall Olsen, who invents antenna technology for the Navy. In our interview, we focused on his DANTE technology which allows for inexpensive high-speed ship-to-ship communication.

Here’s the video, followed by some photos from the shoot:


Inventor Portrait: Mark Setteducati

March 21, 2013

I especially like the latest video for my PBS INVENTORS series because the subject, magician and artist Mark Setteducati, was just so fun to photograph. The camera really liked his face, and I came up with a variety of ways to capture his personality in his small apartment.

Plus, he’s a really smart guy whose inventions are quite clever. Hearing him talk about “hexaflexagons” sent me down a rabbit hole of Google searches and videos about these fascinating mathematical objects. Here’s the video, followed by some photos from our shoot:


Inventor Portrait: Esther Takeuchi

February 7, 2013

One issue I'm conscious of in my Inventor Portraits series is that it's not very gender balanced. Of the forty-something inventors I've photographed and interviewed so far, only eight are women. There have been other women under consideration, but in an effort to keep the inventions varied, I've passed on some that were too similar. I can only have so many women who invent products for the closet, baby room, or kitchen before it begins to give the impression that women only come up with domestic inventions. Those kinds of inventions are certainly important and useful, but my project strives to be broader in its subject matter.

So when I reached out to Esther Takeuchi, a chemical engineer whose life-saving developments in batteries for implantable medical devices have saved millions of lives, I was delighted that she said yes. She's a terrific role model for women in science, and yet she expresses her own frustrations with exclusion in her field.

Inventor Portrait: Donald Scruggs (also: big news!)

November 14, 2012

I’m very excited to announce that the videos I’ve been producing as part of my Inventors Portrait Project are now part of PBS Digital Studios. The first new episode went up on their YouTube channel last week, and new episodes will go up every other Tuesday. Here’s the first episode, about Donald Scruggs, inventor of the Screw-In Coffin:


The series will be mostly new videos, with some of the videos I’ve posted here previously mixed in, perhaps with a few changes. They’ll be new to most people.

The YouTube Channel can be found at its permanent home http://youtube.com/inventorseries, and it would mean a lot to me if you subscribe to the channel and/or share it with your friends.

Here are some of the photos from my shoot with Donald Scruggs:

Inventor Portrait: Ralph Baer

March 4, 2012

Ralph Baer is sometimes known as the father of video games. One of his early inventions, sold as the Magnavox Odyssey, was the first home video game system.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Odyssey, and this week is Ralph Baer’s 90th birthday. So it seemed like a good time to share this video from my interview and shoot with Ralph in which we discuss, among other things, why he’s still inventing at 90 years old.

At one point in our interview he expressed frustration that modern kids don’t read anymore because they’re too busy playing with their smartphones. So I asked him if he thinks kids play too many video games today. Did he accidentally unleash a monster with his invention? His answer:

Yeah. I did a bit. What I thought I unleashed was a family game. If you’ll stop to consider for a second, what’s the ping pong game? You can’t play ping pong with yourself. It was meant to be played by two people. And we had four-handed ping pong and hockey games early on, also. I always thought of it as a family game. And it just sort of degenerated into a one player type thing which was never in my mind.

One trend I’ve seen in my project is that inventions sometimes evolve into something the inventor never imagined. In this case, though, I think I see a pendulum swinging back in Baer’s direction with consoles like the Nintendo Wii, which put an emphasis on group play.

Anyway, Happy 90th Birthday, Ralph!

Inventor Portrait: Ernest Nussbaum

July 8, 2011

I took the last couple months off to have a baby, but now I’m back in the swing of things, so here’s the latest video from my Inventor Portraits series. This is Ernest Nussbaum, inventor of the Practicello.


The Practicello is a full height cello that breaks down to fit in carry-on luggage. It’s not intended to be good enough to play in a concert, but its just meant for cellists who want to practice while they travel without needing to pay for an extra seat on the airplane to bring their instrument. And since it doesn’t resonate as loudly as a cello with a full body, it’s not going to annoy the people in the hotel room next door.

Here are some more photos from our shoot:

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

Ernest Nussbaum Practicello

Inventor Portrait: Steven Sasson

April 11, 2011

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted one of these. This is my portrait of Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera. He was the 32nd inventor in my project. I shot him in October at Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester, just a couple weeks before President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology.


When he initially mentioned that the first digital camera held 30 pictures, I assumed that was due to the storage capacity of the digital tape. It was really interesting to hear that he picked 30 as an artificial limitation, and his explanation why.

Here are a couple photos from our shoot, as seen in the video:

Steven Sasson

Steven Sasson

Update: A few people have commented on the upholstery, so I thought I’d expound on that a little bit:

The only room made available to me for shooting at Kodak was the lobby, which wasn’t very inspiring. I talked my way into getting one more room to look at, a conference room that had slightly more visual interest: there were some cameras scattered around in displays, a conference table, a giant pot with huge sunflowers, and a few chairs. I tried to find a way to shoot in there that didn’t scream “conference room” and that probably hadn’t been done already, since I know they’ve used that room for media before. As soon as I saw this chair parked near a coffee table, I knew I had to use it. The pattern immediately reminded me of the Bayer pattern used in modern digital sensors. (It’s the checkerboard-like arrangement of red, green, and blue receptors — do a Google image search for “Bayer pattern” and you’ll see what I mean). I figured that most people wouldn’t notice the connection — Steve said he’d never heard anyone point it out before — but to me it was as relevant a prop as if I’d picked it out myself for the shoot because it speaks directly to the invention. Now every time I see it, I smile and wonder if there are any other people out there who see the connection, too. I think of it as a subtle inside joke for technically minded.

Inventor Portrait: Brent Farley

May 11, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

I’ve photographed 30 inventors for this project so far, but Brent Farley is among the most interesting. He’s certainly the most prolific. I normally start one of profile posts with an invention name and patent number, but Brent has so many inventions that I couldn’t pick just one. So before I say much more, why don’t I show you this video profile I made that sums him up pretty well:

Here are some of the photos I shot of Brent:

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Brent Farley

Inventor Portrait: William Walsh

March 26, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: William Walsh
Invention: Convertible Pizza Box
Patent: No. 7,051,919
Brand Name: Greenbox

The Green Box is a brand of environmentally friendly food containers. The inaugural product, the Green Box Pizza, is made from 100% recycled materials and features several patented design elements. The top half is perforated to split up into 4 plates. The bottom half folds up into a container for storing leftovers.

William Walsh Greenbox

Will says that back in college he and his housemates were watching football and eating pizza, and nobody was using plates. So he tore up a pizza box and handed out improvised plates. His housemates were amazed, but he dismissed it, assuming everybody did that. He says, “I thought it was standard operating procedure.” Ten years later, people were similarly amazed when he tore up a pizza box at a friend’s daughter’s birthday party. This time, with the wisdom of a business degree and a minor in mechanical engineering, he decided there might actually be a way to turn this practice into a business.

William Walsh Greenbox

“I went to a local restaurant, I bought 50 or 100 pizza boxes — the guy thought I was out of my mind — and an exacto knife, and a straightedge ruler. I spent 3 or 4 days in my apartment creating different options, like different alternatives how I could utilize this base material to do something else… I came up with 4 or 5 different designs, and I took the best function from each design and came up with this current design.”

William Walsh Greenbox

Now I’m hungry.

Inventor Portrait: David Palmer

March 16, 2010

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: David Palmer
Invention: Massage Chair
Patent: No. 4,746,167

You’ve seen the offspring of David Palmer’s invention in shopping malls and convention centers around the world. In 1986, he debuted the first portable massage chair. It was heavy, and made of wood. It collapsed down to a “chair-in-a-box” for portability. The modern incarnation is much lighter, more comfortable, and even more portable.

Here’s David relaxing in an early version of the massage chair:

David Palmer

And in the modern version:

David Palmer

David explains why he’s in the massage field: “I’m focused on making touching a positive social value in our culture. It’s what I call the orphan sense. We’ve got five primary senses and of them the one that’s been ignored most — by academia in terms of research, by the media in general, by society in general — is definitely touch. Touch has the most negative associations attached to it and I’m out to change that because I think that touch is essential to our health and well-being, to our development as children, as infants, and it’s long overdue that we take the pathological aspects of touch and turn them into something positive. We’ve got a very pathological relationship as a culture to touch. And that’s mostly manifest in our relationship to sexuality in this culture. So I’m out to make touch something that is much more comfortable for people at large, and also something that people can utilize in their daily lives for their health and well-being. I think that massage is something that should be in every home, that family massage as it’s done in certain cultures, like the Japanese culture for example, is something that should be taught in every grade school as far as I’m concerned. That’s a basic life skill that people should have.”

Inventor portrait gallery featured on Time.com

November 12, 2009

In conjunction with Time Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009 issue, they’ve featured a gallery of my inventor portraits on Time.com. This includes a couple of inventors I have not yet featured on this site.

Here is the gallery at Time.com: Inventors and their Inventions

Inventor Portrait: Tami Galt

October 30, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Tami Galt
Invention: Folding wagon
Patent: No. 6,491,318
Brand Name: Fold-it & Go

Tami Galt is a mom, and her invention is sold in toy stores, but it wasn’t inspired by her kids. She was looking for an easy way to carry groceries at the market, and thought a little red wagon would be cute. Unfortunately a little red wagon wouldn’t fit in her car. So she came up with a collapsible wagon that stows away in a bag, and can easily be transported.

Tami Galt

Tami Galt

And here’s a video I made about Tami and her invention:

Inventor Portrait: Joe Carolan

September 10, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Joe Carolan
Invention: Guidance system for rescue personnel
Patent: No. 7,196,614
Brand Name: Quick-Finders

Joe Carolan is a volunteer firefighter who has a solution for a serious problem: In a smoke-filled burning home, firefighters can’t see very well, and a stranger’s home is unfamiliar territory. Half of all home fires occur while people are asleep, and 64% of children who die in fires die in their bedrooms. So Joe invented Quick-Finders, a two-part system that helps firefighters quickly identify bedrooms. The first part is a sticker that goes outside the front door. It lets the firefighters know that your home has Quick-FInders. The second part is a reflector you stick to the baseboard on the hinged side of a bedroom door. When firefighters shine their flashlights through the smoke, they will see the reflectors (which are designed to catch light from any angle) shining back and know where the bedrooms are.

Joe Carolan Quick-Finders  Joe Carolan Quick-Finders

Joe Carolan Quick-Finders

The Quick-Finders website: www.quick-finders.com

Inventor Portrait: Tom Roering

June 11, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Tom Roering
Invention: Amphibious recreation vehicle
Patent: No. 7,329,161
Brand Name: Wilcraft

Tom Roering is an ice fisherman who invented a cool product: a lightweight amphibious vehicle that is also an ice fishing shelter. It’s called the Wilcraft (“Wil” stands for water, ice, and land). If it falls through the ice, it floats. It has room enough for two people to comfortably fish together. It can be adapted as an ice rescue vehicle. And it fits on the back of a pickup truck. Take a look:

Photos of Tom and the Wilcraft. Each image can be enlarged by clicking:

Tom Roering

Tom Roering

Tom Roering

The Wilcraft website: www.thewilcraft.com

Inventor Portrait: Art Fry

April 27, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Art Fry
Invention: Repositionable stationery
Brand Name: Post-it Notes

As told on Post-it manufacturer 3M’s website, “The idea for repositionable notes struck Fry while singing in the church choir. His bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal, causing him to lose his page. So… Fry used a portion of his working hours to develop a solution to his problem. Now the world is singing the praises of his pet project: Post-it Notes.”

Post-it Inventor Art Fry

Post-it Inventor Art Fry

You can read the whole story of Post-it history at 3M.com.

Inventor Portrait: Pam Turner

April 23, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Pam Turner
Invention: Easy-to-thread sewing needle
Patent: Pending
Brand Name: Spiral Eye Needle

About 10 seconds after Pam Turner showed me how to thread her Spiral Eye Needles, I was an expert. It usually takes me longer to thread a needle than it does to sew a button, but it really is impressively easy with Pam’s invention.

Pam says she remembers her mother having problems threading needles when she was young. Her mom used to say, “We went to the moon, why can’t somebody fix the needle?” Pam decided that if nobody else was going to do it, she had to.

Pam Turner

Pam Turner

Pam used to actually make the needles herself, using a grinder in her home. But now she has a manufacturer, and business is taking off.

The Spiral Eye Needle website: www.spiraleyeneedles.com

Inventor Portrait: Jerry Ford

April 13, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Jerry Ford
Invention: Automatic wheelchair brake device
Patent: No. 7,066,482
Brand Name: Safe-T-Chair

Elderly people with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia sometimes forget to use the manual brakes on their wheelchairs, which then fall out from under them when they try to stand or sit. When this was brought to the attention of crop farmer Jerry Ford, he decided to do something about it. His invention is a rather clever automatic brake system for manual wheelchairs. It’s even designed in a way that still allows the wheelchair to fold up for transport.

I met with Jerry on his farm and learned more about his wheelchair brake system and its inspiration:

Here’s a better look at the photos in the video. Each of them can be enlarged by clicking:

Jerry Ford

Jerry Ford

Jerry Ford

The Jerry Ford Company website: www.jerryfordcompany.com

Inventor Portrait: Clint Fruitman

March 10, 2009

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Clint Fruitman
Invention: Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator With Hot Or Cold Thermal Application
Patent: Application No. 11/025,615
Brand Name: The Painaway Pro

Clint Fruitman is a materials scientist and biomedical engineer who holds 15 patents from his years working in the plastics, semiconductor, jewelry, and pharmaceutical industries. All of this experience has come together in his latest invention, which makes it easy to administer the pain therapy technique called Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (more info about TENS at Wikipedia) and hot or cold therapy at the same time.

I’m trying something new with my inventor portraits. I’ve begun shooting video of the inventors I photograph and putting together a short film about each person. This is the first video in the series.

Being the first video of this type that I’ve ever done, I realized while editing what other important shots I should have gotten, questions I should have asked, microphone I should have used, etc. But I suspect that will always be the case to some extent. I have some really interesting inventors coming up for this project, and I think the videos are going to be a great new component.

Here’s a better look at the photos (click any one to enlarge):

Clint Fruitman

Clint Fruitman

Clint Fruitman

Clint Fruitman

Inventor Portrait: Michael Rosenberg

November 18, 2008

Part of a continuing series of inventor portraits.

Inventor: Michael Rosenberg
Invention: Media-Dispensing Apparatus and Method
Patent: Application No. 11/827,032
Brand Name: The Game Chamber

Michael Rosenberg’s kids have a lot of games for their Nintendo DS handheld system, at a cost of 30 or 40 bucks each. As kids will do, they sometimes let their bedrooms get messy, and games get lost or broken. Finally, out of frustration, Michael decided to invent a gadget that stores games in a way that ensures they don’t get lost: in order to remove a game from the Game Chamber, you have to put the one you’re using back in.

Here’s Michael with a Nintendo DS and his dog Busta (click any photo to enlarge):

Michael Rosenberg Game Chamber  Michael Rosenberg Game Chamber

I can’t imagine how a toy could get lost in this room:

Michael Rosenberg Game Chamber

And finally, here’s Michael in the plastic injection molding factory where the Game Chamber is made, standing among various molds for dozens of products made at the factory.

Michael Rosenberg Game Chamber

The current model Game Chamber holds 6 Nintendo DS games, but Michael is developing models that hold more games, and that come in different shapes and sizes appropriate for different age groups and different game systems.

The Game Chamber website: www.gamechamber.com