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Mark Esser


National Inventor’s Month: You Can Make It If You Try

Keep company with some of the greatest minds in history

Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 13:37

Depending on whom you ask, May (or August or April—it would be great if someone were to standardize this, but we’re going with May) is National Inventor’s Month. Lots of people have dreams of being a famous inventor. Even I’ve had “ideas” for inventions before.

For instance, during the 1990s, after finally finding my keys in the refrigerator more than once and spending more time looking for the remote than I care to admit, I thought it would be great if I could build a little alarm that you could attach to such easily misplaced items that would beep incessantly until you were able to find them.

Owing partly to the technological limitations of the day, but mostly to my own lack of skill (and a good deal of old-fashioned laziness), that idea never became reality.

I understand that some genius somewhere finally did build one, though. Congratulations!

Anyway, while I still have the occasional crackpot idea, I don’t think there’s any danger of you seeing me on any of the many inventor-themed reality shows on television today—provided you can find your remote.

Inventor Jacob Rabinow Credit: NIST

NIST is literally littered with people who, most unlike me, are actually inventive. In celebration of National Inventor’s Month and Public Service Recognition Week, which also happens to be in May, I’d like to introduce you to Jacob Rabinow (1910–1999), one of the most creative and prolific inventors ever to work for the United States government.

Rabinow was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1910. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, he and his parents fled first to Siberia and then to China in 1919. When his father died in 1921, the family immigrated to New York.

After earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York, Rabinow joined NIST as a junior mechanical engineer. At NIST, his inventive genius found a nurturing and supportive environment.

Rabinow played critical roles in the development of NIST wartime inventions such as the nonrotating proximity fuze and the “Bat” guided missile. He received his first patent in 1947 for a camera able to record the flight path of airplanes. By the end of his life, he held 230 U.S. patents and 70 foreign patents.

Rabinow with his letter-sorting machine. Credit: NIST

Among these were:
Mechanisms for the automatic regulation of clocks and watches
• An automatic letter-sorting machine for the U.S. Post Office
• The magnetic particle clutch, which is used in automobiles, airplanes, servo-mechanisms, and many other machines
• The world’s first magnetic disc memory
• The “best-match” principle in optical and magnetic character-reading machines
• The straight-line phonograph

In addition to his technical work, Rabinow delivered hundreds of talks on technologies and inventions. He was a Regent’s Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, a frequent guest on radio and television programs, and an author of many papers. His full-length book, Inventing for Fun and Profit, was published in 1989 by San Francisco Press.

The Jacob Rabinow Applied Research Award, an annual internal NIST award first presented in 1975, is granted to employees for outstanding achievements in the practical application of the results of scientific engineering research. NIST chemical engineer Richard Gates was the 2015 recipient of this prestigious award for his work with the U.S. Mint.

And, as I said, NIST is brimming with other inventive people as well; just look at all the technologies we have available for licensing.

Since that first great innovator who discovered that the secret to inventing was to “bang the rocks together,” we have, as a species, been defined by our inventiveness. In fact, since we humans don’t have much in the way of speed or claws or teeth, our inventiveness has often been cited as one of the key reasons we’re still around. Maybe that’s why so many people want to be inventors: They want to be part of that legacy. That drive to innovate is what allowed us to master the rock and many other things.

So, to all you inventors out there, it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail; keep dreaming, keep doing, and know that you are keeping company with some of the greatest minds in history. We can’t all be Jacob Rabinow or Richard Gates, but you’ll never invent anything unless you keep trying.

Happy National Inventor’s Month!

First published May 5, 2015, on NIST's Taking Measure blog.


About The Author

Mark Esser’s picture

Mark Esser

Mark Esser is a writer in the NIST public affairs office and a contributing editor to the NIST Taking Measure blog. Esser also manages NIST’s social media accounts, leads tours, and voices the Mole and Major Uncertainty for the League of SI Superheroes. Esser prefers crunchy peanut butter.


word usage

"When his father died in 1921, the family immigrated to New York."  The word is emigrate.  Immigrate is from the New York point of view.  Emigrate is what they did leaving the other country to come here.

Good point of view--keep on trying and make the world better when you succeed.

Thanks for the story of the inventor.  Now, if I could invent something to autocorrect my typing!

immigrate vs emmigrate

Hi DKHAYS. Glad you liked the story.

You made me rush to my grammar sources :-). The author has it correct. I looked at several online grammar sources and each has their own way of explaining the difference. However, they all agree. The most clear example is from http://writingexplained.org/immigrate-vs-emigrate-what-are-the-differenc...

    My grandparents immigrated to the United States.
    My grandparents emigrated from Norway.

So you immigrate "to" someplace
But you emmigrate "from" where you are

Other grammar sources include:

"Immigrate is usually followed by to, and emigrate is usually followed by from."
"To escape torture, persecution, and societal and religious conflict, Iraqi refugees have been immigrating to America by the thousands for the last few years. [Boston Globe]"

"Citizens from 17 European Union countries were given freedom to immigrate to Switzerland in 2007. (Business Week)"



my poor english teacher

In high school and today I am horrid with grammar and punctuation. My teacher explained that the point of writing was to convey your message so the reader can understand it. My response was to point out, if she was able to correct it then she could understand the message and therefore it was conveyed. 

So I would think English teachers celebrate the inventor of spell check,….. but NOT auto correct *stupid smart phone*.

I enjoyed the article but would have liked to also know how many ideas had flopped.