Inventors are problem-solvers. They find solutions to important problems. Often, these solutions greatly improve our lives — yet we don’t know who was behind them. That’s where the National Inventors Hall of Fame steps in, recognizing inventors and inspiring youth to be creative and innovative.
This month, the organization will honor a new class of inventors, including two Eagle Scouts and a former Scout.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame operates a museum in Alexandria, Va. Inside, more than 600 people are showcased for their contributions, efforts and passion. There are famous names like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Nikola Tesla. And, soon, there will be the names of Rory Cooper, Robert Bryant and Roger Tsien.
The Hall of Fame is recognizing Cooper for his innovations in wheelchair technology, for both manual and electric wheelchairs.
After a bicycling accident in 1980 left him paralyzed from the waist down, Cooper soon realized that the needs and comforts of those using wheelchairs were not being met. You had to fit the wheelchair, not the other way around.
So, Cooper went back to school, studied electrical engineering and earned his doctorate degree. He started bioengineering research laboratories at California State University-Sacramento and the University of Pittsburgh. Serving as the Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Labs founding director for the last two-plus decades, he and his team have developed many improvements to wheelchairs with 30 patents either awarded or pending.
Some of the lab’s inventions include improved ergonomic wheelchair rims, robotic arms, adjustable backrests, prosthetics, seating coaches and joystick algorithms.
“I am grateful to have the privilege to lead an amazing team that achieves tremendous feats of engineering in service of people frequently,” Cooper says. “I rely on the Scouting values every day.”
Cooper earned the Eagle Scout rank in 1972 with Troop 319 in San Luis Obispo, Calif. While he was a Scout, Earth Day was founded and there was a national awareness for conservation. For his Eagle Scout project, he petitioned his city officials to save a local wetlands area from development by collecting 1,000 signatures. Cooper worked with city and county officials on ideas for the land; they settled on creating a park.
“The leadership experiences and commitment to service learned through Scouting provided me the tools to create inventions to help humanity and people with disabilities,” Cooper says. “The tenacity and grit required to earn Eagle Scout are valuable tools for success.”
The Hall of Fame is honoring Bryant for developing a polymer into an insulation material for cardiac resynchronization therapy devices or pacemakers. This improvement, which can affect millions of Americans, allows pacemakers to last longer and, in many cases, last for the remainder of the person’s life.
“I joke the life I save might be my own one day,” Bryant says. “It’s great to see the things we develop are applicable to people in their everyday lives.”
Bryant, who earned the Eagle Scout rank in 1977 with Troop 23 of Glencoe, Ill., enjoyed cooking and camping, especially attending Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in Wisconsin for summer camp.
He tried a lot of different activities in Scouting, which he credits for enhancing his curiosity and staying encouraged when things don’t go according to plan. This helped when he changed majors from electrical engineering to chemistry and physics a couple years into college. The switch led him down a path to join the Polymer Institute at the University of Akron becoming a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) graduate student research fellow.
In 1990, he joined NASA’s Langley Research Center to develop composite materials for rocket bodies and other aircraft. During his research, he found that one of his polymer formulations displayed unique solubility characteristics during polymerization. This meant it could be used for implantable medical devices. Working as a consultant, the polymer was developed as a coating and electric insulator, specifically for the left ventricle of the heart.
“The absolute limits are based on what you use to make it,” Bryant says. “As we push the boundaries, we can make things that we couldn’t make before.”
Tsien is a posthumous inductee. A Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry, he helped discover and develop green fluorescent protein variants, which became an important tool for scientists to study cellular biological processes. In his autobiography submitted to the Nobel Prize organization, Tsien says he was a Scout and the first merit badge he earned was Chemistry.
From age 8 through 15, he experimented with using herbicides to remove weeds, tried to synthesize aspirin and built ammonium dichromate volcanoes.
“These experiments made me confident enough that when I had to earn my first merit badge as a Boy Scout and was advised to pick something really easy, I chose Chemistry,” he wrote. “Tougher merit badges like Hiking, with its requirement for a 20-mile hike in one day, I got later.”
At 16, he began studying at Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics four years later. In 1989, he joined the faculty of the University of California-San Diego. There, he saw how the techniques for studying cell proteins, like injecting dyes into the cells, were problematic for getting accurate results. So, Tsien modified green fluorescent protein, making it glow in different colors, which allowed scientists to track living cells and their processes more easily.
This modification is used by scientists around the world. His name is on more than 130 U.S. patents.
Tsien passed in 2016.
All three will be honored Oct. 26 at the 50th induction ceremony in Washington, D.C. They are among 16 innovators whose names will be etched on illuminated hexagons in the museum’s “Gallery of Icons” exhibit.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame museum, located at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office campus in Virginia, has inducted inventors every year since its inception in 1973 with Edison as the first honoree.
The hall of fame also hosts a youth STEM education camp based on some of the inductees’ work and a collegiate competition in Washington, D.C.
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