A Modern-Day Ben Franklin

One of the most prolific inventors of our time, Jacob Rabinow's insights can benefit any company striving for success through creative new products.

Striding with purpose down the halls of the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., Jacob Rabinow moves like a man 20 years his junior. But then we are in his element and soon he'll be talking about his favorite topic: innovation. It was here that he began his career as a mechanical engineer in 1938, when the government research agency was called the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). The challenges and freedom afforded him in this position and later at his own company unleashed a creative storm of ideas that resulted in a flood of an astonishingly broad range of inventions and 230 U.S. patents. His creations range from simple gadgets for his friends to complex, multitechnology systems that have touched our daily lives in the areas of mechanical drives, optical character recognition, sound reproduction, photography, computer memory storage, timepieces, locks, and automated mail-sorting equipment. One of his most curious inventions is a rotating prism that makes the label on a turning record "stand still" so you can read which song is playing. Now retired at age 88, but still inventing, Rabinow's career was celebrated anew last year when he won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Award for lifetime achievement. Rabinow shares 50 years of knowledge on the nature and process of innovation, providing lessons to benefit any company whose long-term success will be determined by its ability to lead the market with creative new products. Not by bread alone "I'd like people to understand that the glory of man is that he is more than a practical animal," says Rabinow. "He has a sense of greatness. We like to think of stars in heaven, magnitude, and relationships that have nothing to do with being practical. Society doesn't live by bread alone. Society asks for something better. People have to have something for fun, excitement, and pleasure, and that is where innovation is important. It raises you to another level of activity, which is not useful. In other words, I don't want to live in a society that just provides food and clothing, even if it is good food and clothing. That's not enough. "Invention is culturally driven, and American culture today is not a strong driver. If a country wants great inventors, it has to make sure that inventors are encouraged, rewarded, liked, made heroes. There will always be people who invent because they love it, but the total output will be low." Although Rabinow earns a handsome living through his inventions, his personal motivation is to have fun. "I don't invent to make money," he says. "I invent because I get a kick out of it. It's an achievement, where nothing is at stake. If I don't succeed, the world is not going to come to an end. The challenge and the licking of the challenge -- all of these inventions are like solving puzzles. I am perfectly happy just to solve a problem" -- even if it takes four decades." In 1938, about a week after joining NBS, Rabinow learned that a section of the bureau was working on locks for postage meters. Soon thereafter the assistant to the president of the Yale & Towne Mfg. Co. came to Washington to lecture on the history and theory of locks, and Rabinow attended with a colleague. The speaker said that a carefully made combination lock is virtually pick-proof, and that any lock that can be opened by a key can be picked. Later that night, Rabinow pondered, "and suddenly I realized the two statements were not compatible," he says. The next day he declared he knew how to make a pick-proof keyed lock. His colleague countered, "You have just heard perhaps the world's greatest authority on locks say that a key lock cannot be made pick-proof." "Yes," said Rabinow, "but he also told me how to do it." This initiated the longest quest of his inventing career, taking 40 years to figure out a practical solution to building combination-lock security into a keyed lock. In his solution, a conventional key moves tumblers in the lock upon insertion, "setting the combination" all at once, rather than sequentially, as in a traditional combination lock. A quarter turn of the key, which can be accomplished only if the tumblers are set correctly, mechanically isolates the internal mechanism, eliminating any possible entry via the key hole to pick the lock. Additional rotation opens the Rabinow "key isolation" lock. When Rabinow took the idea to the marketplace, however, he was unable to sell his patented mechanism. "I went to the best lock people and they all agreed this was a better way," he says. "But people were afraid of the novelty, and manufacturers lacked the hardware to manufacture the new lock. They wanted to use existing tools. If a company is already making 80,000 locks a day, why should they bother to change? So just being better is not the point. As always the motto is, 'Make it better, but don't change anything.' Industry is too heavily invested in the old to buy everything new." Along the way Rabinow has experienced other disappointments with devices recognized as superior: venetian blinds made from a continuous ribbon that were colorful and easily cleaned; an automatic automotive headlight dimmer that could distinguish even its own headlight reflections from the lights of an oncoming car; and a straight-line-motion phonograph arm that eliminated distortion. The latter invention found its way into high-end Japanese and Danish turntables, but only after Rabinow's patents had expired. "You often hear that inventions are an answer to the demands of the marketplace," says Rabinow. "I don't know where this nonsense comes from. Most great inventions create the marketplace. The whole trick of inventing is to invent something that you can convince people they need before they know they need it. So to create great inventions, you have to create the market, too." Jules Verne's inspiration Born in Kharkov, Russia, in 1910 as Yakov Aaronovich Rabinovich, he moved with his family to Siberia just before World War I, then to China for two years, finally arriving in the U.S. in 1921, settling in Brooklyn. Inspired by the machinery in his father's shoe factory and by the literary works of Jules Verne, which he read as a child in Russian, Rabinow was determined to become an engineer. In 1934 Rabinow earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York (now City University of New York.) He sold hot dogs at Coney Island, worked in factories wiring radios for $12 a week, took engineering Civil Service tests, and finally in 1938 landed the mechanical engineer job at NBS in Washington, earning $2,000 a year. Eventually assigned to the weaponry lab, "I had problems thrown at me from all sides: guided missiles, parachute releases, safety mechanisms, proximity fuses, generators, speed controls, and recording equipment, so that the opportunity was there, the encouragement was there," says Rabinow. "If you have the gift, and if you like to do it, you can invent easily, because you learn a lot of tricks, and it gives you the confidence that you can do it." Rabinow is mildly critical of today's emphasis on teams. Recognizing they are essential to the total development and marketing of a new product, he considers them an unlikely birthplace of original ideas. "Invention by a team is fiction. Inventions are nearly always single-minded," he says. "When you go back in the history of technology you find that all the great inventions with very few exceptions were made by individuals or small organizations, not in big companies. So you must identify brilliant people, support them, and give them freedom." The process of innovation "I am very conscious of the mental process of invention, and I have no doubt that the great innovations come by a random process," continues Rabinow. "Invention is an art form. It is no more logical than composing music or writing poetry. How can you logically compose Rhapsody in Blue? Invention, like any art form, is a game of chance. Luck plays an enormous part in the beginning. You struggle and struggle, then suddenly it hits you. "You take old gears, old musical notes, old words, all the greatness that has come before you, all the information you have in your head, you throw it up in the air and see what happens. Some of the combinations look good; others are trash, and you discard them. The trick is to combine them in some new and startling and beautiful way. Once in a while you say, 'Whoops, this is nice, this is worthwhile.' It may not even be something you are looking for. In fact, I liken invention to the punch line of a good joke; unexpected, it surprises you, and it's correct." One year, Rabinow received a Swiss-made Bren wristwatch as a birthday present from his wife, Gladys. Initially the watch was accurate, but after a while it lost time. Rabinow removed the stainless steel back with pliers, and turned an adjustment lever slightly. Once the watch was adjusted a few times it ran perfectly, albeit a bit scratched. Rabinow thought, "There must be a better way." So he invented a watch that would automatically adjust its timekeeping capability with each reset to correct the time. Thus if the watch was running slow and a person reset the time, that action would also speed the basic time keeping minutely without the watch wearer even knowing he was doing it. To eliminate false adjustments in case someone was resetting the watch when crossing time zones, the adjusting mechanism ignored any changes of more than 15 minutes. His timepiece technology was not commercially successful in wristwatches -- to herald a watch as self-regulating indicated it was imperfect to start, said the watch companies -- but the patents were applied extensively in automobile clocks. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Rabinow and his patent attorney each received 1 cent royalty per clock, amounting to $20,000 to $30,000 annually for almost 20 years until the advent of quartz movement. In fact this invention was the most financially rewarding personally for Rabinow throughout his entire career. (The majority of Rabinow's patents are owned by the U.S. government or the companies that contracted for his services). Company man In 1954 Rabinow left NBS to start his own company, Rabinow Engineering, which performed technical and engineering consulting services, split 50/50 between industrial firms and the U.S. government. Working with the Post Office during the next 10 years he made one of his most significant advances: automatic mail-sorting equipment that only now is being replaced by new technology. But to set that stage, Rabinow had three other significant inventions prior to leaving NBS: an IBM card sorter for the Census Bureau, the first magnetic disk file for computers, and his favorite invention, a machine to read letters and numbers via optical character recognition. The device recognizes letters and numbers as specific patterns of dots, which are compared to all letters and numbers to find a "closest match." The technology is still used today to read bank checks, credit-card information, and IRS documents, some at the rate of 14,000 characters per second. Rabinow also connected reading machines and dictionaries to automatically correct mistakes as early as 1954, predating computer spell-checking. "One day I was giving a talk about how I thought industry could use computers," says Rabinow. "I already had a reading machine, a disk file, and a sorting machine. I said if I could read some information on an envelope, compare it to information on a disk file, then sort the letter physically based on what I learned, I should be able to automate at least some sorting operations in the Post Office. And I'm willing to bet lunches for a year that I can do it." However, the Post Office did not bite. "Not only was the Post Office not interested," recalls Rabinow, "it hated our guts -- 'What are these longhairs from National Bureau of Standards doing? They admit they've never been in a post office, yet they are telling us how to sort mail.' There was even a small article in the newspaper about the man who was going to automate the post office. "That night a salesman came to my house. 'If you are going to automate the Post Office and throw all these people out of work you better buy some cemetery plots.' I told him I never said that, but I bought four cemetery plots just in case. I still have them -- unused." Two years after giving his talk -- by this time Rabinow had left to form his consulting company -- the head of NBS called him and said, "The Post Office is here with money in their hands, and they want to know where is the wise guy who said he could automate the Post Office. What should I do?" Rabinow told the NBS director, "Take the money and give me a subcontract." The rest is history. In 1964 Rabinow Engineering and its 100 employees were purchased by Control Data Corp., primarily for its reading-machine technology. Rabinow stayed on as a vice president until 1972, but then he returned to NBS, becoming chief research engineer of the National Engineering Laboratory. Rabinow's success with his own company makes him think that industry should look more to technical competence when selecting its captains. "We must have managers who are more expert in the products they make than they are today. Today's companies are run by people who are very good in understanding stock options and how to make a profit. That, unfortunately, is a short, temporal position that doesn't pay off. When I talk to the boss of a company, I want to be talking to the best engineer. Take Bill Gates. The boss is a computer programmer. It isn't accidental Microsoft has been so successful." Rabinow further laments the emphasis on short-term results and the R&D trend toward more applications development. "The movement away from basic research in industry today is a tragedy. In the long run, it is suicide," he says. In 1989 Rabinow formally retired from NIST, and in 1990 he published his first book, Inventing for Fun and Profit (San Francisco Press). Today he is still inventing, still lecturing, and working with NIST in a guest capacity to help set up its new museum. He also plays tennis with a friend and with Gladys, his wife of 55 years and mother of their two daughters. "I hope to invent for another five to 10 years," says Rabinow, who now plies his trade from a well-equipped workshop in his custom-designed home in Bethesda, Md. He is currently working on a new pick-proof lock and a variable-speed hydraulic engine.


Magnificent Magnets
The best inventions are the simplest, most obvious. In the lobby of the National Institute of Standards & Technology is a simple display area demonstrating an interesting invention. The setup is a cylinder within a cylinder. The one-sixteenth-of-an-inch space between them is filled with a mixture of oil and fine iron particles. Driven by a hand crank, the outer cylinder turns freely over the fixed inner cylinder. But when a small amount of electric current is applied to the outer cylinder, which is also an electromagnet, rotation becomes more difficult. The slightly magnetized cylinders and particles provide resistance. As more current is applied the outer cylinder comes to a halt, gently, soundlessly, held firm by magnetism. This is the magnetic-particle clutch, one of the most celebrated inventions of Jacob Rabinow. In commercial designs, the clutch found a home in Renault, Hillman, and Subaru automobile transmissions, flap controls in Learjets, and in IBM disk and tape drives. "Any competent high-school senior could have developed this," observes Rabinow. But no one did until 1948. "One of the interesting things about inventions is that when it's all worked out, it looks obvious, but for some strange reason was not obvious enough to have been done before."
Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish