Tribute to Jerry Lemelson

The Greatest Inventor of Our Era

by Ron Riley

Jerome Lemelson, the greatest inventor of our times, died yesterday afternoon in California. Mr. Lemelson, with over five hundred patents on his inventions, was the third most prolific inventor our country has produced after Edison and Land. His accomplishments are a matter of public record, so I am going to tell the story that only a few people know.

Mr. Lemelson believed that invention was crucial to maintain America’s economic well-being. He worked his whole life inventing. His wife, Dorothy worked much of her life to support the family while he invented, often only to see those inventions stolen by the less savory big corporations. When he finally achieved staggering economic success in his mid-sixties, he generously donated tens of millions of dollars to promote the study of innovation and use of that knowledge to educate our young such that many more of them could succeed as inventors.

But Mr. Lemelson’s greatest contribution may be the example he set for other independent inventors like myself. He started inventing at a time when many large corporations always got away with stealing inventors’ work. He diligently continued to invent even though many of his inventions were misappropriated from him.

As he achieved economic success after decades of work, those same disreputable corporations started a massive PR campaign to smear his good name. They found this necessary because the mood of juries had changed. Those juries started slapping the disreputable companies with huge awards to the inventor. And the appeals court started upholding inventors’ rights by the mid to late 1980’s.

I first started hearing stories of inventors abusing the patent system three years ago. I thought such abuse unlikely based on my personal experiences where 80% of the users of my inventions do their best to steal. But I investigated the allegations anyway.

What I found was McCarthyism for profit, a systematic attempt, by the very companies who had long histories of crushing inventors, to avoid the consequences of their poor judgment by painting Jerry Lemelson as a bad person. These companies were smearing Mr. Lemelson in the media, in Congress, and all over the Internet. They were diligently working behind the scenes to stop his initiative to empower America’s inventors.

The rhetoric of these companies could not be further from the truth. It has been said that one can judge someone's character by who his friends are, and as much or more by who his adversaries are. Well, Jerry Lemeson’s enemies do him credit. And his enemies encouraged me to speak out against this gross injustice.

People are reluctant to get involved, afraid of drawing fire. My study of history taught me that grievous wrongs such as the Holocaust and McCarthyism were allowed by people who refused to take a stand for what is right and just.

Like Mr. Lemelson, I am also a very principled person who came to respect him, and then became a friend of Mr. Lemelson. I am proud to publicly declare that friendship. Mr. Lemelson was a kindred spirit, a person who set a great example. I intend on widening the trail he blazed, to facilitate America’s economic rebirth by encouraging the next generation of inventors, just as Jerry Lemelson encouraged my generation. Mr. Lemelson improved the climate for my generation and I intend to do the same for the next.

Many people thought that Mr. Lemelson’s staggering economic success made up for everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. Too much money is as big a liability as not enough. It becomes a burden. Jerry and his widow, Dorothy, bore that burden well, and used much of the money for the public good. They became Robin Hoods, who at great personal expense defended their patent rights against often corrupt large companies. Then they redistributed the wealth to encourage and train the next generation of America’s inventors.

I know I am not the first person to discover that hardship builds character, but Jerry Lemelson displayed true character, wisdom, and a willingness to fight for what is right regardless of the personal cost. His death is in large part a result of the terrible stress associated with his desire for justice. It was reported in the Wall Street Journal (4-9-97, Royalty Rewards) that Ford Motor Company is the leader of a secret coalition of over a dozen companies to stop Jerry Lemelson from asserting his patents. This is not surprising since they have a long history of sparing no expense to avoid compensating inventors, not the least of which is Bob Kearns (inventor of the delay windshield).

I, and many other inventors, will proudly carryon in Jerry Lemelson’s footsteps. We will make sure that history remembers him for his great accomplishments, and that his shining example is passed on for generations to come.

Ronald J. Riley
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Page last updated 10/3/97.