Some Claim Inventor Lemelson a Fraud
Some Claim Inventor Jerome Lemelson, Credited With Bar Code Scanner, to Have Been a Fraud
By ADAM GOLDMAN Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press
LAS VEGAS Aug 20, 2005 Jerome Lemelson was dying. One of the nation's most prolific and perhaps greatest inventors had been diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer. The disease had spread to his liver, ravaging his body and causing severe pain.
In his final days at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 1997, the 74-year-old Lemelson couldn't eat or drink. Jaundiced and bedridden, he did not complain.
He made no special requests. His room was the same as any other patient's.
Nor did he brag about his vast accomplishments. More than 600 patents to his credit. A fortune amassed. Powerful foes toppled.
As death approached, he believed his place in history had been secured, thanks to his most spectacular inventions: machine vision and the bar code scanner, technology that has dramatically altered the way in which we live.
"He was a simple man," said his Houston oncologist, Dr. Giora Mavligit. "A mensch."
But to his many detractors, Lemelson was something else.
They claim Lemelson's patents were in fact worthless. Lemelson, they say, was one of the great frauds of the 20th century.
Critics charge that for decades Lemelson manipulated the U.S. Patent Office. They accuse him of exploiting loopholes that forced 979 companies including Ford, Dell, Boeing, General Electric, Mitsubishi and Motorola to pay $1.5 billion in licensing fees.
"Anything he claims to have invented, he didn't. He's a science fiction writer," said Robert Shillman, founder, chairman and chief executive at Cognex Corp., the world's largest maker of machine vision products and one of Lemelson's most truculent opponents.
On his deathbed, Lemelson knew he had enemies. But he believed he had defeated them, that he had built an impregnable machine to protect his inventions after his death, a for-profit foundation that would enforce his patents and collect millions in royalties.
For years, it would do just that. A team of tenacious Lemelson lawyers humbled the giants of business, protecting his name and suing any corporation they accused of using his ideas.
Lemelson was dying, but his legacy was immortal.
Or at least that's the way it seemed.
On Christmas Eve in 1954 the same year he married his wife, Dolly Lemelson filed a 150-page patent application with the U.S. Patent Office.
The patent spelled out how a robot could perform a variety of fantastic tasks during industrial production, such as riveting, welding and transport. It also showed how a robot, armed with a camera, could serve as a quality control inspector and manage jobs that the human eye could not.
Two years later, Lemelson a balding, thin man of average height with a prominent nose submitted another application expanding on the previous one.
Those two applications, Lemelson asserted, contained the genesis of machine vision and computerized automatic identification, later known as bar code scanning concepts the rest of the world wouldn't come to recognize until decades later.
Lemelson never bothered to construct a model or build a company around the designs. The patent office didn't require it. The lone inventor didn't have time to take his ideas from drawing board to assembly line.
He was too busy, dreaming, doodling and reading technical journals that drove his prodigious imagination. A builder of gas-powered model airplanes from the time he was a boy, he had satiated his intellectual curiosity in the engineering department of the Army Air Corps during World War II.
He later earned two master's degrees in aeronautical and industrial engineering at New York University, and did post-grad work in the military's Project Squid, which was developing jet engines. Then he worked as a safety engineer at a copper smelting company his last paying job, said Rob Lemelson, his son.
Instead, at his various New Jersey homes, Lemelson toiled away.
Almost everything Lemelson spied had potential. Technical marvels existed everywhere. He put notion after notion onto thousands of legal pads.
Nothing seemed out of reach.
"A lot of the times the ideas that Jerry came up with were practical and a lot of times they were impractical from a commercial point of view," said his younger brother, Howard, 80, a retired electrical engineer.