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Jerome H. Lemelson

Jerome H. Lemelson, a prolific inventor who donated $6.5 million to the Institute and funded an annual invention award, died Wednesday. He was 74.

In January, 1994, Lemelson established the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize as part of a $6.5 million innovation and invention program. Lemelson and his wife also endowed a professorship, 10 graduate research fellowships, and eight undergraduate awards. The annual contest is the country's largest prize for inventors.

In addition, Lemelson gave more than $10 million to the Smithsonian Institution, their largest cash gift, to establish the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. He also funded a series of projects at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

Lemelson, who lived in Incline Village, Nev., died of liver cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Prolific inventor

Lemelson, who made his fortune from royalties from his patented inventions, held more than 500 patents.

If additional pending patent applications are approved, Lemelson could become the American to hold the most patents since Thomas Edison, his son, Eric, told the Los Angeles Times.

Currently, Elihu Thomson, a former professor of electrical engineering at MIT and acting president of the Institute from 1920 to 1922, holds the second highest number of patents.

Lemelson holds patents for mechanisms used in automated warehouses, camcorders, VCRs, the compact disk, portable cassette recorders, cordless telephones, and fax machines, among others.

Lemelson is best known for his 1956 invention of a"machine vision device" which was eventually patented in 1989. By then, the technology was used in bar-code scanners worldwide, and Lemelson collected hundreds of millions of dollars companies that had used his idea.

Lemelson was careful to enforce his patent rights in the courts, often collecting millions of dollars from companies. He was sometimes accused of stretching out his patent applications for many years to reap the royalty benefits of his invention beyond the 17-year lifespan of a patent. In his defense, he wrote that most of the time was spent waiting for the patent office to process the applications for his sometimes complicated inventions.

MITideal partner' for Lemelson

Former Dean of the Sloan School of Management Lester C. Thurow was named the first holder of the $2 million Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professorship. "This chair will give MIT the opportunity to spearhead initiatives that will help to foster inventions and innovations that clearly provide real world benefits," President Charles M. Vest said at the time of the grant.

"MIT is an ideal partner because of its longstanding commitment to fostering the spirit of invention and the development of technological innovation and the international respect it commands," Lemelson said.

America is facing an innovation crisis, Lemelson said in 1994, referring to a survey that found almost 75 percent of high school students would rather be in show business than be an inventor.

"We must convince our nation's young people that the field of invention can be far more rewarding -financially and in other respects - than most of our young people think," Lemelson said.

Lemelson had "a grand vision here of trying to make invention as salient as being an athletic hero to young people," said Glen L. Urban, dean of the Sloan School of Management, when the grant was announced. Lemelson's initiative was "consistent with our strategy to support innovation in organizations."

Success in invention and innovation is linked to economic success, Lemelson said. "By growing our own technology and rewarding American inventors with protectable patents, we create jobs at home and capture revenue streams throughout the globe."

Lemelson is survived by his wife, Dorothy; two sons, Eric of Portland, Ore., and Robert, of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.