Washington, D.C. is widely perceived as a political snakepit these days.
But recently, it played host to a beacon of human possibility.
Make that “beacons”: Thursday, May 3, in a black-tie ceremony beneath the colossal marble columns of the National Building Museum — a fitting place to honor the planet’s most esteemed makers-and-thinkers — 15 new inductees were admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF). The nonprofit’s mission, according to its website, is to celebrate “our best and brightest achievers … the forward-thinkers who have revolutionized our world.”
“We had a great list this year,” said Rini Paiva, the NIHF’s executive vice president for selection & recognition. Of the selection process, she added, “It’s always fascinating to see which inventors will be recognized for their major and impactful work.”
This year, two inductees had a connection to Colorado.
Mark Caruthers, who is on the faculty at the University of Colorado, “is being honored for his chemical synthesis of DNA,” according to Paiva.
Warren S. Johnson, the great-grandfather of Telluride local Mary Johnson Wodehouse, was recognized posthumously for his invention of a temperature control (a third of this year’s awardees are deceased).
“I think it’s an amazing honor,” Wodehouse said.
Other honors went to inventors of organic light-emitting diodes, “sports broadcast graphic enhancements,” nanocomposite dental materials, and tissue typing for organ transplants.
The awards were a curious reflection of our times, both past and present. Turns out, the inventor of Lycra Fiber, or spandex, perhaps best known as the predominant material in women’s undergarments, was invented in the 1950s by a male, DuPont scientist Joseph Shivers Jr., who was honored posthumously. On the other hand, the honoree for an environmentally safe clean-up technology known as emulsifed zero-valent iron, or EZVI, is very much alive — Jacqueline Quinn holds 11 patents “and continues to invent other technologies for environmental remediation, a field in which she is a recognized authority.”
All the honorees have received U.S. patents for their invention(s). They often have something else in common, Pavia said: a desire to solve a nagging problem. Warren Johnson, for example — Mary Wodehouse’s great grandfather — was inspired to create a temperature-control device because his classes kept getting interrupted. Johnson was a teacher in Wisconsin, where winters are long and cold and classrooms were then-heated by hot-air furnaces in the basement (this was around 1876). “The system yielded fluctuating classroom temperatures,” a statement about Johnson’s award explains. “Hand-operated dampers located at the basement furnaces were the sole, inefficient means of adjustment. Every hour, a custodian entered classrooms to assess temperatures, then opened or closed dampers as needed. The ongoing disruption spurred Johnson to develop a practical solution, leading to his 1883 patent for the electric thermostat.”
The difference between Johnson and the rest of us, who would likely have been pleased with our single invention and gotten back to our classes — that is, if we even bothered to do something besides complain — is that Johnson continued to feel he could do better. Great inventors “are very persistent and dedicated to the pursuit of an answer to the problem,” Pavia said.
Johnson, for example, left his teaching job and went on to found the Johnson System of Temperature Regulation, the world’s “first multi-zone automatic temperature control system.” By the early 20th century, the system was being used in the U.S. Capitol, the New York Stock Exchange, West Point, and palaces in Spain and Japan.
Wodehouse never knew her great-grandfather when she was growing up. “He died when I was only 7, and my sister was 5,” she said. “But I do remember my grandfather a little bit. And my parents talked a lot about the company he founded” (Johnson Controls, still based in Wisconsin).
What she recalls most vividly are trips to Altadena, California, where her grandfather and his cousins moved (“They broke out” of Milwaukee, as Wodehouse put it). “The cousins did interesting things,” she said.
“My dad’s cousin, Seymour, helped develop radar in World War II. And my grandfather was very stately and austere. He had a huge library, and I loved books. Everybody was larger than life to me at that age,” she recalled. “Nobody was lacking in confidence in that family, that’s for sure. These were incredibly accomplished older people.”
Her interactions with this side of the family gave her confidence.
“I always knew I had a brain, so when we could spend time with (these) other family members, especially when I was a teen, I could have really interesting conversations,” she said.
“It gave me hope. Growing up, my parents didn’t really care if I had an education.”
Wodehouse was never driven to become an inventor, at least not literally. Even so, you might say her Johnson family ties helped her reinvent her idea of herself.
Seymour had a series of wives, and “Talking to these really well-educated women, I had role models.”
Wodehouse went on to college in Santa Barbara, and today she’s a Realtor in Telluride.
Her time in Altadena, she said, “gave me a window into what was possible.”