How an F Student Became America’s Most Prolific Inventor

Lowell Wood broke Edison's patent record and helped bring down the Soviet Union

by Ashlee Vance | October 20, 2015

“It’s really a one-person sort of vehicle,” says Lowell Wood, right after he offers me a lift back to my hotel. His brown 1996 Toyota 4Runner, parked outside his office building in Bellevue, Washington, has 300,000-plus miles on the odometer and looks it. Garbage bags full of Lord-knows-what take up most of the back. He squeezes his paunchy, 6-foot-2-inch frame behind the wheel and, using his cane, whacks away papers, more bags, and an ’80s-vintage car phone to clear some room on the passenger side. The interior smells like pet kibble. Wood puts the keys in the ignition and then spends half a minute jiggling them vigorously until the truck finally starts. As we pull away, I wonder aloud if all the detritus crammed in his SUV could be from a hobby. “No, I don’t have time for any of that,” Wood says. He adds that he’s not terribly good with the ordinary aspects of life—paying bills, say, or car washing. He’s too consumed with inventing solutions to the world’s problems. Ideas—really big ideas—keep bombarding his mind. “It’s like the rain forest,” he says. “Every afternoon, the rains come.”

From most people, a comment like that would be preposterously self-important, if not delusional. But Wood is just telling the truth. At 74, he’s been an inventor-in-residence at Intellectual Ventures, a technology research and patent firm, for about a decade. He’s paid to think and orchestrate international teams to develop products such as anticoncussion helmets, drug-delivery systems, super­efficient nuclear reactors—anything, really, that might address some pressing need. In the 1980s he led the development of the space lasers that were meant to shield the U.S. from Soviet missiles as part of the “Star Wars” program. He’s an astrophysicist, a self-trained paleontologist and computer scientist, and, as of a few months ago, the most prolific inventor in U.S. history.

“At least half of his activities – maybe more – are trying to help the least fortunate people on Earth.”

Thomas Alva Edison earned his last patent on May 16, 1933. U.S. Patent No. 1,908,830 (“Holder for article to be electroplated”) is for a device that bonds two metals via electrolysis. It was hardly his most exciting invention. Going back to 1869, Edison had patented breakthroughs in communications, movies, lighting, and power distribution. By the end of his career, he was an international celebrity with 1,084 utility patents to his name, the most for an American.

That record stood until July 7, 2015, when Wood received U.S. Patent No. 9,075,906 for “Medical support system including medical equipment case,” a device that can imbue medical gear with video­conferencing and data-transmission abilities so a patient can leave a hospital and use the machines at home. It’s his 1,085th patent. Just as remarkable, Wood has more than 3,000 inventions awaiting perusal by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He’ll likely remain America’s top idea man for many years to come.

Wood’s work at IV has included whimsical projects such as a laser-based shaver and a microwave that can customize its power for individual items on a plate, so meat, vegetables, and starches all come out at the same temperature. He’s also worked on a low-power clothes dryer, automated anticollision systems for cars, and a large thermos for preserving vaccines. “At least half of his activities—maybe more—are trying to help the least fortunate people on earth,” says Nathan Myhrvold, IV’s co-founder and CEO and former chief technology officer at Microsoft. “He’s really good at it. His ideas have already saved tons of lives and have the potential of saving enormously more.”

As Wood drops me off at the hotel, he mentions how relieved he is to know a good mechanic. He intends to keep the 4Runner on the road long enough to bequeath it to his daughter, who’s getting her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Plus, not worrying about his car frees up time to invent. Of late, he’s been consumed with a project to develop a one-time, universal vaccine. “All we need is a couple of tricks,” he says, “and then you’d be able to grab this newborn—literally right out of the uterus—pinch its thigh and push the stuff in, and all their pediatric vaccinations are done.”

Wood insists that if he’s smart, he didn’t start out that way. Growing up in Southern California, he says, “I didn’t do well in any classes.” He often failed or received the lowest score on the first exam given in a particular course and improved his marks through repetition and intense effort. The strategy worked. He skipped a couple of grades and enrolled at UCLA at 16, where he tested into an honors-level calculus class. The worst score on the first exam—once again—was his. “I’d gotten into the class on the basis of aptitude, not knowledge, which is a ruinous sort of thing,” he says. “It’s like being told I understand the theory of swimming, and so here I am tossed into a high-speed river.”

The score horrified Wood, and he tried to make up for it with a very hard extra-credit problem. “You had to figure out how to cover an area with tiles in a specified fashion,” he says. “This is back in 1958, and it was a famous math problem. It was hopeless, and everyone worked on it for a while and then threw it away.”

As it happened, UCLA had just taken delivery of the first digital computer west of the Mississippi. Wood taught himself how to use the machine over the Christmas break and then wrote a program to solve the tiling problem. “It was a shameless sort of thing,” he says. “I used brute force to solve a problem that was meant to be solved through cleverness.” After he turned in his work, his professor accused him of cheating. “And so I reached down in a briefcase and pulled out the program,” he says. “The professor’s jaw literally dropped, and he said, ‘What is a computer? You can have the points if you teach me how to use this thing.’”

Wood went on to get undergraduate degrees in chemistry and math from UCLA, as well as a doctorate in astrophysics. Then, in 1972, he got a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he served as a protégé of Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist and father of the hydrogen bomb. Wood worked on projects ranging from spacecraft to the use of gamma rays to place hidden watermarks on objects. Then came the Star Wars project, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, for which Wood pushed a team of scientists to build a weapons system capable of detecting and destroying Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles midflight.

That Wood opens up about this is unexpected. Historians and journalists haven’t been kind to Teller, one of the most polarizing figures of the Cold War, and Wood often gets lumped in with him as a fringe science lunatic, especially when it comes to Star Wars. After billions of dollars and years of controversy, the initiative never made it out of the lab.

Wood is quick to suggest that he knew all along that the system, while technically feasible, was too complex and expensive to be practical. It was mainly for show, he says—a feint that broke the enemy’s morale and treasury. “I went into it with my eyes wide open, and I did the job,” he says. “I got the result that I wanted. The Soviet Union collapsed. Check. It’s done. The Evil Empire is no more. My colleagues and I helped to make it so, and it was just what was aimed for.” For Wood and his wife, who also worked at the lab, the end of the Cold War was a great relief and an opportunity. “When we finally watched the hammer and sickle come down on Christmas Day of ’91, I told my wife, ‘We’ve just been given our lives back.’ What a stunning Christmas present.”

In 2006, after four decades in the government, Wood retired to become a full-time inventor. He’d met Myhrvold many years earlier while interviewing him for a science fellowship. The pair rekindled their friendship at a dinosaur conference—Myhrvold also has a thing for paleontology—and he talked Wood into joining IV. Myhrvold soon introduced Wood to Bill Gates. The men hit it off and now meet regularly to brainstorm. “Lowell is the definition of a polymath,” Gates says. “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.”

Wood has taken on the role of on-demand puzzle solver for many of Gates’s humanitarian projects. “Whenever there’s a scientific question I need to understand better, Lowell is one of the first people I turn to,” Gates says. “If he doesn’t know the answer, which rarely happens, I’m sure he can figure it out.”

On a recent morning at Intellectual Ventures, Wood potters past a disturbingly lifelike Tyrannosaurus rex head hanging in the reception area and a collection of antiques—typewriters, microscopes, and an 1890 census tabulating machine—toward a conference room. He’s dressed, as usual, in slacks and a tie-dyed, short-sleeve oxford. He has a collection of these shirts, made by a street artist in Berkeley, Calif. The artist retired, and Wood has been cycling through his set for years. “That’s why they’re so faded,” he says. The tie-dye, combined with his reddish-gray beard, suggests a hippie Santa.

Listening to him is like binge-watching several seasons of Nova. He talks for four hours in a soft, deep voice, digressing into one intellectual rabbit hole after another: physics, space lasers, pestilence, rockets, whale oil, lithography, fracking, eidetic memory, war. He’s adept at the tangent—did you know that measles is a zoonosis humans picked up from grazing animals 1,500 years ago?—that somehow always relates back to the topic at hand.

Wood attributes his ability to hop from subject to subject, making associations that sometimes lead to inventions, to reading—a lot. He subscribes to three dozen academic journals. “I have a terrible deficiency of willpower once I open an electronic table of contents for Physical Review Letters or the New England Journal of Medicine,” he says. “It’s just terribly difficult to pull myself away from them. There will be these three articles that I absolutely have to read before I can turn loose of this thing. If I don’t read them, I’m doomed. I’ll never come back to them because there will be the next day’s journals and the ones after that.”

“There’s really nothing to it all. You just read, and you remember what you read.”

This habit goes back at least five decades. “I went to hear Linus Pauling lecture when I was a student,” Wood says. “Afterward I waited until everybody else went away, and then I asked him frankly, ‘How do you come up with these huge number of wonderful ideas?’ He said, ‘There’s really nothing to it all. You just read, and you remember what you read.’”

As part of his mental regimen, Wood refuses to make to-do lists, even for grocery shopping. If he forgets something at the store, he says, “I will kick myself vigorously.” He gives himself the same treatment at work. “If you make a mistake, you should not only not make that mistake again but also don’t make that class of mistake again,” he says. “That’s an exceedingly important concept to improve human performance at the individual scale.”

The more difficult the problem and the more layers of complexity it has, the more emphatic Wood’s disquisitions get. Take his work on concussions. “Recently folks have been getting really concerned about concussions, because professional athletes are showing up demented in their 40s and dying before they’re 50 with real unpleasant brains at autopsies. So we were asked to look at the concussion situation from an inventive standpoint. The usual sort of thing happens when we do one of these things that none of us know anything about: You go out and you do a massive literature search, and you get 500,000 pages of stuff to read. You paw through it, and you’re trying to understand what in the world is the story.

“It turns out to be a very embarrassing sort of thing. I didn’t know the first thing about a concussion. I thought it was just brain slamming against the interior of the skull, particularly violently.” Wood looks down. It clearly bothers him that he had it wrong. “Basically that has nothing to do with what a real concussion is. A concussion occurs by the brain being very rapidly twisted inside the skull, and in particular the so-called angular acceleration. It’s not just the twist or the speed of twist, but it is the time rate of change and the speed of the twist that tears neural fibers apart. It’s a ghastly sort of thing. It literally just rips the nervous system apart. And it turns out there are definite thresholds for this. If a certain twisting rate is sustained for more than 40 to 60 milliseconds, or the twisting rate goes above 6,000 radians per second square or whatever, then you have significant damage occur.

“But the striking thing is that it piles up. If you do that same thing again a week or two later—or an hour or two later, heaven help you—the damage not only becomes more severe, but it takes much longer to heal. And if you do it three times in a bad afternoon on the soccer field or football field, the damage is likely to be permanent.” He continues: “That’s what happens to the NFL football players. They get a sustained concussion two or three times in an afternoon of play, and they repeat it every week. And they repeat it every year. They end up after 10 or 20 years of this with a ruined brain, absolutely nothing left. And so the issue is posed to us: ‘Well, what in the world do you do about this?’ ”

An organization—he declines to say which—came to talk him into developing anticoncussion technology. He wasn’t interested at first. “These guys are professional gladiators,” he says. “They know what they’re doing. I mean, it’s been documented for a decade or two that this is what happens to you. It’s a self-inflicted wound. Why are we wasting time on this?

“Well, it turns out that’s not where most of the damage occurs. Most of the damage occurs on high school playing fields, nonprofessional athletes. Young males between the age of 10 and 20 are the ones that are inadvertently, unknowingly, innocently taking damage, because there are so very many of them. And they’re determined to not let the team down. And they’ve been hit real hard, and they’ve taken mild damage, and they want to keep playing.

“These kids are not out using their heads as weapons like professional football players do. They’re kind of innocently larking around, and every once in a while they just kind of get hit hard or hit badly in a scrimmage.

“And there’s two interesting things that you can do. First of all, you can give them a helmet that will measure what the level of damage is that happens in any particular hit and will signal, ‘Hey kid, you’ve had enough, this is it for a day, a week, a month, or whatever. You’re just on the sidelines. You had a bad break, and here’s what has to be done in order to prevent permanent damage.’

“Then the more engineering-inventive sort of thing is a helmet that will actually prevent the damage no matter how badly you may misbehave or somebody may mistreat you. You can literally keep the brain from twisting in a helmet, or, worse comes to worst, the helmet will go active on you and will anchor your head to your shoulders.”

Wood’s anticoncussion solution, much like football, isn’t for the squeamish. Sensors in the helmet trigger a mechanism that fuses a player’s helmet and shoulder pads. Wood is vague on exactly how that would work, but spikes or rods of some kind would shoot down from the helmet to keep the head from turning.

“In a fraction of a—a tenth, a twentieth, a thirtieth—second, the helmet will put things down that will grab your collarbones and not only will your neck not break, but your brain won’t be damaged. You may take some collarbone damage, but everybody understands that collarbones heal. At least you won’t take the lasting damage to an organ that you really depend on. That’s what we’ve invented.”

Wood’s refusal to say who approached him to work on helmet technology is typical cloak-and-dagger theater for IV. The company is an idea factory that often gets contracted to work on difficult, potentially lucrative problems. It keeps this work to itself until the invention has been patented and is ready to commercialize.

Many of the best ideas bubble up during IV’s monthly Invention Sessions, where Wood, Myhrvold, Gates, and others gather in a room and brainstorm for hours. Lawyers and assistants sit on the periphery and take notes. “I know lots of supersmart people, but most of them, including me, don’t keep remotely as many facts in their head as Lowell does,” Myhrvold says. “He can remember the physical properties of almost every element. It’s just astonishing.”

Hundreds of staff scientists pile into a laboratory each day to collaborate with a much larger, worldwide network of scientists on retainer. This research community has come up with amazing breakthroughs—patented, of course—which the company is increasingly turning into actual products. It does this by either forming startups or entering ventures with large, industrial partners. The company also has a philanthropic division called Global Good, which is a joint venture with Gates and often does work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of IV’s projects with the Gates Foundation grew out of a chronic complication in the fight against infectious diseases: keeping vaccines cool. They become ineffective if they get too hot or cold, which is a huge problem in developing areas where electricity is unreliable. Wood and Myhrvold came up with a superinsulated cylinder. It’s about the size of one of those Gatorade coolers that football players dump on their coaches’ heads and uses materials similar to the insulation on spacecraft. The device—now manufactured by a Chinese refrigeration company under the brand name Arktek—­maintains a constant temperature for a month or more, as opposed to the couple of days that existing vaccine coolers can manage. Workers in the field simply pack the Arktek with ice and let it do its thing. “As much as a third of all vaccines in the developing world have problems, because they’re stored at the wrong temperature,” Wood says. “There’s the so-called cold-chain challenge of being able to transport vaccines all the way on out to every last little wretched hut in Africa or Bangladesh or rural Pakistan. You’ve got to get the stuff out there at the right temperature, or else.”

Wood continues: “Bill Gates and I share the common viewpoint that vaccines are the closest thing to magic that human technology has come up with, because you do this terribly ritualistic little pricking of the skin or sometimes take a pill, and you’re immune to the disease forever after. It’s like the ancient legend of Achilles. His mother grabbed him by the heel, dipped him in the water, and he was invulnerable to weaponry forever after. Vaccination is just exactly like that. Lethal diseases? You just laugh. They can’t touch you.”

Wood’s anti-malaria technology is much closer to his background in weapons research: the Photonic Fence, which is to mosquitoes what Star Wars was meant to be to Soviet ICBMs. The system uses fence-post-mounted cameras and light sensors to measure insect size, speed, and wing-flapping frequency. When a mosquito’s detected, a laser zaps it into a tiny puff of smoke. The technology is being developed for commercial use by Lighting Science Group, a lightmaker in Florida.

“Bill Gates and I share the common viewpoint that vaccines are the closest thing to magic that human technology has come up with.”

At its best, IV saves lives. At its worst, it can be a bully. It owns patents in software, medical devices, and other areas, and licenses rights under those patents for a fee. Companies in Silicon Valley, in particular, have complained that IV’s stance is basically, “Pay up or we’ll sue.” The bulk of its revenue comes from these licensing deals. Wood prefers to keep the conversation on IV’s weird, wonderful ideas, leaving talk of this side of its business to Myhrvold.

Like the ridiculously fast plane. According to Wood, it’s feasible to alter the air surrounding a plane in such a way that it creates an enveloping bubble, which in turn lets the plane fly faster. “Why don’t you just go out and endow the medium you’re interacting with—the air—with a much higher speed of sound?” Wood asks. “You don’t have to do it permanently. I just want to make the tiny, tiny little portion of the atmosphere with which the airflow is interacting have a higher sound speed just while it’s interacting with the airflow.” Wood won’t go into much detail about how all that would work—he says he’s still working on the patent paperwork. “Just change the rigidity of the air as it interacts with the airflow. From a physics standpoint, you’re just raining down on the local air, the gravitational flux on the plane. You want the plane to effectively be weightless, to hang where it is. So you just want to take the inter­action of the earth’s gravity with the plane and give it to the air. The earth is kind of a waste product. It just takes the gravitational flux and carries it away, and who cares what it does with it? That’s all. That’s not asking for too much.

“We know how to do it. Why in the world don’t we just go out and do it? If I wanted to get from New York to London or whatever in a hurry, I probably wouldn’t even bother with an airplane. I’d take a submarine, because water has almost five times the sound speed as air does. The Soviets, bless their hearts, demonstrated how to fly through the water at 1-kilometer­per-second speeds. So you can fly through water much faster than you can fly through air.”

On the subject of things like planes and engines, Wood becomes downright distraught and angry. “What have we been doing?” he asks. “How can we be so lazy?” He sees the world as a never-ending puzzle. It’s an attitude that leaves others feeling optimistic after chatting with him. Famine? Evil? Impending environmental doom? They’re but problems waiting to be solved.

Wood, for example, is of the mind that global warming can be stopped relatively quickly and inexpensively through geoengineering. “There’s all kinds of solutions laying out there on the table that nobody denies are technical solutions. They’re just not politically preferred solutions,” he says. One such solution would be to sink the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into the deep ocean; another would be to push the warm water on the top layer of the ocean down to the bottom.

He seems most bullish on the idea of using high-altitude balloons to release particles of sulfur or some other substance that would, in effect, provide shade for the planet. He’s convinced this wouldn’t only be feasible but would also come with few, if any, consequences. “All these sort of things involve capital investments on the order of $10 billion, but people are talking about going out and spending $1 trillion a year to cope with global warming, and they’re not even doing a very good job of it,” Wood says. “The solutions are straightforward. Nobody denies that they’re workable. People say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t do that. This is evil. It’s wicked. It’s inelegant.’ But mostly it’s politically incorrect.”

He argues there’s little chance of climate change—or anything, really, natural or human-made—wiping out the species anytime soon. He points out that the sheer number of humans makes us hard to kill, and says we’re still not as good at mass destruction as we imagine. “It’s going to be a long, long time before the human race has the ability to threaten 90 percent of human lives.”

On a much brighter note, Wood thinks there are plenty of ideas—really big, great ones—left to be imagined. “It’s irrational,” he says. “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.” BW

Illustration: Steph Davidson