A struggling student who “didn’t do well” in any of his classes, often failed exams, or got the lowest marks on tests or assignments out of his peers does not sound like an individual who was destined to become America’s most productive inventor – or productive at anything, really. But, this seemingly incapable boy lacking “school smarts” grew up and dove head-first into the wonderful world of inventing and last July, he surpassed Thomas Alva Edison’s record for the most patents filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The real kicker – you’ve probably never even heard of America’s Top Inventor. We’re shedding some light on his life of many inventions and humble beginnings to prove that anyone can make their dreams come true.
On July 7, 2015, at the age of 74, Lowell Lincoln Wood Jr. received his 1,085th patent, breaking Edison’s record of 1,084. As if this outstanding feat isn’t impressive or awe-inspiring enough, Wood has over 3,000 MORE patents currently under or awaiting review by the USPTO. Yes, we saw your jaw drop just now – ours did, too!
It’s hard to imagine that such a successful inventor – and astrophysicist, paleontologist and computer scientist – could ever have been anything but brilliant, but Wood’s early years in school and even his undergraduate studies were far from extraordinary. As he noted to Bloomberg’s Ashlee Vance – a source we’ll quote regularly throughout this article - he rarely excelled at any of his academic endeavors in school and regularly failed classes. Yet, he persevered, buckled down on his studies and practiced repetition while studying – a strategy and level of dedication that worked so well, he skipped a couple grades and enrolled early at UCLA at 16.
Nonetheless, Wood once again received the lowest score in an honors-level calculus course in 1958. Perturbed and determined to build up his poor score by tackling an incredibly difficult extra-credit problem. Many had worked on this infamous math problem – an equation to cover an area with tiles in a “specified fashion” – and given up. But the innovative Wood took a different approach that would change the course of his life forever.
As fate would have it, Wood had access to the first digital computer, which UCLA had just delivered west of the Mississippi and taught himself to use the machine created a program to solve this unsolvable equation for this class – his first invention. Upon turning in his work, his professor accused him of cheating, so he pulled the program out of his briefcase to prove his honesty. The professor was stunned and had no idea how to use a computer. He told Wood he could have the points if he taught him how to use the machine.
Wood went on to graduate from UCLA with two undergraduate degrees in chemistry and math, as well as a doctorate in astrophysics. Out of college, he was hired by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he worked closely with Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. Wood worked on various high level projects including spacecraft and gamma ray technology, and played a led a team to build a weapons system that was capable of detecting and eradicating Soviet Union’s missiles in midflight – also known as the Star Wars project. Though this weapons system never came to fruition, the project played a huge role in demobilizing and demoralizing the enemy and played a role in bringing an end to the Cold War.
Not too shabby for your first job out of college, eh?
Wood worked for the government for 40 years and in 2006, he retired from that industry to pursue inventing full-time and was hired as in-house inventor at Intellectual Ventures. To make a long story short – and to add to Wood’s impressive resume – he was introduced to Bill Gates by a colleague around this time and the two meet regularly for brainstorming sessions to this day.
“It’s not just how much he knows, it’s the way his brain works. He gives himself the freedom to look at problems in a different way from everyone else. To me, that is the mark of a great inventor,” remarked Gates about the inventor.
Pinpointing just a few of Wood’s best inventions is no easy task, and the answer certainly depends who you ask. In addition to his noteworthy work on the Star Wars project mentioned above, Wood has invented hundreds of products, medical systems and methodologies ranging from an anti-concussion helmet and a mosquito laser, to energy efficient dryer systems and temperature-stabilized storage systems with regulated cooling. You can view each of Wood’s patents here, just in case you wanted to browse all of them.
At 75, Wood has managed to stay out of public eye on purpose, as he’s not interested in fame, but only inventing and making the world better, one solution at a time. He’s currently working on a project led by Intellectual Ventures’ philanthropic division called Global Good, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation. Wood and the CEO of IV, Nathan Myhrvold invented a temperature regulating cylinder to prolong the shelf life of vaccines in third world countries where electricity is not reliable. The product is currently being manufactured by a Chinese Refrigeration Company called Arktek, and is only one of many inventions forging their way into reality from the mind of Wood in the present and future.
Wood likes to read. A lot. And has largely credited his love for reading – and acutely retaining the information – with his huge success in the inventing industry. So, essentially, he never stops learning. He also chooses to view the world’s most debilitating issues as simply puzzles waiting to be solved.
He’s convinced in a matter-of-fact way that mankind’s improvement of the world in which we live, via innovation, technological advancements and sheer will power is only fated to get bigger and better, saying in a Bloomberg article, “’It’s frankly illiterate to not be optimistic. We’re going to see a blossoming across essentially every front, unprecedented in human technological history. This is not something that’s hoped for. This is baked in the cake.’”
What will Wood whip up next? The world will just have to wait and see!
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