Making an art of invention Jack Rabinow has always followed a simple formula: Think big, ignore practicality, and be willing to start over.


GAITHERSBURG -- Jacob "Jack" Rabinow is 88 years old, plays tennis three times a week, drives into work more or less every day, takes excellent portrait photographs, talks bluntly, buoyantly and inexhaustibly, and just picked up the inventor's equivalent of an Oscar for lifetime achievement. And he still brims with new ideas.

During the lifetime honored last month by the Lemelson-M.I.T. Awards Program, Rabinow, an electrical engineer with two degrees, has patented in the neighborhood of 300 inventions here and abroad (with some duplicates, he admits). But he's by no means finished. He's got a patent pending right now, and two more on the way.

Walk with him through the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, where he's worked on and off since 1938 and now evaluates other people's inventions part-time, and he's got an idea every other step. Like a two-floor elevator you'd operate just by yelling "Go!"

"It would automatically go to the right direction," he explains. "It can't go any other place."

To make the sundial in the institute's courtyard work on cloudy days, he once suggested an artificial light that moved like the sun. "Not very practical," declared the director.

Rabinow doesn't mind impractical. He still loves, for example, his quick-reversing motor on display in the institute library.

"It reverses very fast and stores the energy in a spring shaft," he explains. "And when it stops, it winds up and goes in the other direction. You lose no energy. It reverses in 3 milliseconds from full speed to full speed.

L "Nobody ever used it," he laments. "But it's a cute gadget."

More fun than profit

But in fact most of his inventions have been deemed practical and often "elegant." The list is long and diverse:

The automatic letter-sorting machine used by the U.S. Postal Service; a magnetic particle clutch in Subaru and Renault cars; optical and magnetic character-reading machines; a straight-line record stylus for super-high fidelity phonographs; a variety of proximity fuzes used in bombs, mortars and rockets during World War II; the world's first magnetic memory disc - a precursor of those in your home computer.

Rabinow himself is just getting around to learning how to use a computer. He seems to have pretty much skipped the typewriter, doing a lot of his work in longhand (secretaries transcribe it). He dictated his book "Inventing for Fun and Profit." His own inventing has mostly brought more fun than profit. Though he's done modestly well over the years, he's also lost a bundle or two.

And even though he's only begun to run a computer, he does know how they work. In fact, Rabinow worked eight years for a computer company.

For him, "Computers are wonderful calculating machines. . . . They'll handle data like a human being cannot." But he doesn't believe any computer can match the serendipity of memory.

He tells a story about a friend from those Jurassic days before voice mail who challenged him to come up with a device that would tell him when his phone rang when he wasn't there.

From his childhood, Rabinow remembered the simple electrical device (a loose contact) that popped a toy dog from a box when you clapped your hands and called "Rex." He applied the principle to the phone and it worked.

His point? "A computer can't connect a toy dog with a telephone answering machine 30 years later. And it shouldn't."

Random thoughts

Rabinow also suggests that logic is not necessarily the mother of invention. More like a stepdaughter who does the grunge work.

"Invention is a random process," he says. "You don't know ahead of time what's going to come out."

That doesn't mean every invention is random, he's quick to add. "If you come to me and say I'd like to have a better binder for a book, I probably could come up with something."

Any good engineer could do that. But this engineer compares his finest inventions to music and poetry.

"The good stuff is an art, in inventing or any other thing," he says. "The really good inventions ... they didn't come with any logic," he adds. "I was thinking of something and - Oops! I got it! I know how to do it! I know how to do it!"

And then? "Then you do it," he says. "It's a random process, just as writing a poem is."

Maybe that's why the largest picture in his office is a drawing of a hand with the fingers crossed. But most of the wall space is covered with awards and citations, including an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Towson University.

Rabinow lives in Bethesda with his wife, Gladys, who was Phi Beta Kappa at Hunter College, where she graduated cum laude in mathematics. She also holds another important title.

"She's president of the Rabinow Deflation Society," he says. "An international organization of people whose job, when I get publicity or great compliments, [is to] bawl the hell out of me."

Inventing himself

Rabinow made his reputation early at the old Bureau of Standards, when he was testing meters that measure the flow of rivers.

"I said, 'The equipment's terrible.' My boss says, 'It's the international standard.' I said, 'It stinks.' "

So he rebuilt the testing equipment on his own time. It proved to be far more accurate, and quietly became the new international standard.

He sealed his reputation at the institute one day when he brought in his 1930s Leica camera, which he had fitted with a homemade telephoto lens. He had cut the threads to connect the lens to the camera by hand - with a file.

Somebody told the chief machinist and he said: "Tell Mr. Rabinow he's a damn liar."

Rabinow brought him the lens. The machinist put on his jeweler's loupe, looked at it and exclaimed: "I'll be damned."

Jack Rabinow had already survived World War I and the Russian Revolution when he arrived in the United States in 1921 with his mother and older brother. He was 11 years old. He'd been born Yakov Rabinovich in 1910 in Ukraine, where his father had a shoe factory.

The family fled eastward as war and revolt unfolded, through the Urals to Siberia, and finally to Harbin, the old international port in Manchuria. His father died of typhus before the family could travel to Canada and eventually New York City.

He graduated from City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering in 1933; a time, he says, when "a Jewish engineer was a contradiction in terms." It was also the low point of the Great Depression. He sold hot dogs at Coney Island, became a door-to-door peddler, and worked in a radio factory before coming to Washington and the Bureau of Standards.

Just before World War II, he was shifted into ordnance work, to develop his proximity fuzes (not "s," he insists, "z") and safety mechanisms for weapons.

During a recent talk at the institute, he recalled the nonchalance of one of the Army's bomb disposal experts.

"How the hell [did] you get into this crazy business?" Rabinow asked the fellow. "You know, Jack," the man replied, "when I'm working on a bomb, there's nobody near me to tell me what to do."

It's a philosophy Rabinow can appreciate. Something an inventor needs, he says, is "chutzpah."

"You have to have the nerve to think that you could do something better and different from anyone else."

An inventor also needs the ability to keep a lot of information in his head - and to admit what he's doing is not really good enough.

"You've got to be willing to throw out the crap and start again," Rabinow says.

Over the past 20 years at the institute, Rabinow has evaluated some 30,000 energy-related inventions for possible grants. Perhaps 700 were approved.

"The inventors were very often angry," he says. "But we gave them the truth as we saw it."

He says he's learned for himself that the chance of being truly original is very small. He's also found it's very difficult to convince other inventors of that.

"People are so carried away with their own brilliance," he says. "It's hard to believe that the world is full of equally brilliant people."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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