$10 million jump-start to inventions


Washington -- Jerome Lemelson, whose inventions range from the Velcro dart toy to cancer-detection equipment, unveiled his newest idea yesterday: a $10.4 million cash gift to the Smithsonian Institution to start programs devoted to invention and innovation.

The gift, the largest bestowed by an individual during the institution's 149-year history, will be used to create a center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History to run educational programs, exhibitions and research materials related to invention.

"Today's kids believe that the way to riches is through fame and fortune in sports and entertainment," the inventor, 71, said at a news conference announcing the new center. "We will soon find our economy in serious trouble if we don't prove to young people that invention can bring rewards far greater than they imagine."

He voiced concern that the United States is losing its edge as a leader in invention.

The new center, named after the inventor and his wife, is officially called the Jerome Lemelson and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

The center has planned symposiums and conferences, oral and video histories of modern inventors, fellowships and intern programs and exhibitions and youth programs.

The center plans to kick off the first in a series of annual forums with a symposium on Nov. 10-11 called "The Inventor and the Innovative Society," which will be free to the public.

The Lemelson Center is the most recent initiative of the broader, national philanthropic program that the Lemelsons created in 1993 to foster nationwide interest in invention. Among those efforts is the Hands On Science Center, which is part of the "Science in American Life Exhibition" at the National Museum of American History.

Mr. Lemelson joined about 10 seventh-graders from the Patricia Robert Harris School at the exhibit yesterday, talking to them about the merits of invention. On a table near them sat the popular toy robot ARMATRON, an example of a device Mr. Lemelson's patents in robotics helped make possible.

Mr. Lemelson, who resides in Nevada, holds more than 500 patented inventions -- the fourth-largest patent portfolio in the nation's history.

"His patents are not so much the whole product: They're the heart, or the brain that makes things what they are," said Arthur P. Molella, a chief curator at the National Museum and director of the Lemelson center.

Devices that Mr. Lemelson's patents apply to include the VCR, camcorder, computer, facsimile machine, and cordless telephone. His inventions have been licensed around the world by such companies as Sony, Kodak and IBM.

Mr. Lemelson said he is "deeply concerned" about a drop in the number of college graduates from engineering programs, which he said has fallen from roughly 65,000 to 22,000 over the past 25 years. "I think the country will suffer a tremendous shortage of scientists and engineers in the 21st century unless we increase the number of graduates in science and technology," he said.

Smithsonian officials said Mr. Lemelson's grant will be broken into an initial $5.4 million payable over five years to support the center and its programs. Mr. Lemelson's foundation has pledged an additional $5 million to establish an endowment fund to maintain its activities.

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