Inventing With the Stars

What would-be innovators can learn from celebrity patent holders

US Magazine has a section called "Just Like Us!" that showcases celebrities who are unwittingly photographed doing chores readers recognize from their own, less glamorous existences. "Britney carries groceries!" "J-Lo changes diapers!"

We all know that by dint of their fame and fortune, these stars are nothing like us at all. Here's another way some stars are different: They're inventors, too. When they're not at center stage, screen or limelight, they're inventing things and getting patents on the handiwork.

Some celebrities enjoy a reputation as being cerebral, and the fact that they hold patents should come as little surprise. Take astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, who holds several patents related to space travel. Less anticipated are celebrities in the mold of Neil Young, who moonlights as a model train inventor and enthusiast (Unknown Legend, indeed).

Even as their inventions distinguish stars all the more, they provide some important lessons for the would-be inventor in everyone.

Score by playing defense. At their core, patents are a defensive mechanism. They prevent other people from doing what you are doing, at least for a limited time. Large, technology-based corporations such as IBM (IBM) know this well and amass huge patent portfolios to maintain their competitive advantage and keep competitors at bay. Apparently, Michael Jackson knows this, too.

In the music video and live performances for his hit Smooth Criminal, Jackson, while flanked by dancing mobsters, suddenly starts leaning at an impossible angle (demonstrated at the 3:50 point at Many wondered, "Is it a camera trick?" Had Jackson unleashed another amazing dance move, on par with the Moonwalk? Turns out, it was the shoes.

Jackson patented a "method and means for creating [an] anti-gravity illusion." The simple but ingenious idea underlying the dance move is to have the dancer wear special shoes with a slot in each heel. The stage has a small knob that fits in the slot when the shoe slides over it, much like a chain-door lock. The dancer is then effectively mounted to the floor and can lean at angles that are not otherwise physically possible (if you watch closely in the video referenced above, the dancer on the far right of the screen gets his heel stuck while removing his shoe after performing the patented maneuver).

The value of Jackson's patent was not in the potential sales of his gravity defying shoes. Rather, the value to Jackson was that no one could perform the same move in the same way until the patent expired. In other words, he used the patent defensively to prevent others from performing one of his signature dance moves. History seems to have proven this true as the dance move remains closely associated with him.

Improve on existing technology. Just because someone has a patent on a mousetrap, it doesn't mean you can't invent an improved version. An improvement is every bit as patentable as the underlying technology. Consider famed Hollywood actress, Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr was best known as a leading Hollywood actress of the early and mid-twentieth century for her roles in movies such as Samson and Delilah and Ziegfeld Girl. She also happens to have invented an important communication technology that is still used by the military.

Lamarr's first husband (of six) was a leading manufacturer of armaments and military aircraft in pre-WWII Germany. Apparently having learned from him, Lamarr came up with an idea for a "frequency hopping" technology for controlling torpedoes. At that time, radio control of torpedoes was already known. The problem was preventing someone from discovering the control frequency and jamming the signal.

Lamarr's improvement was to have the transmitter send signals while "hopping" from frequency to frequency in quick succession.

If the receiver on the torpedo was synced to hop frequencies in time with the transmitter, the torpedo would receive the full signal. By doing this, someone tuning into one of the used frequencies would only detect a brief piece of the signal. What Lamarr could not figure out was how to synchronize the transmitter and receiver.

In 1940, after moving to the United States, she mentioned her idea to a neighbor during a conversation regarding breast augmentation (true story). The neighbor, a trained pianist, suggested using the same perforated paper rolls in the transmitter and receiver that are used in player pianos, enabling 88 different frequencies. Together, they filed for and received a patent as co-inventors. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although skeptics in the U.S. Navy prevented frequency hopping from being developed at the time, it was later adopted (with electronics, instead of piano rolls) in the late 1950s and continues to be used by the military to this day. Lamarr didn't invent radio control; she improved upon it. But her improvement was patentable in its own right and, arguably, just as valuable.

Don't be afraid to venture beyond your area of expertise. Valuable inventions don't have to come in your area of specialization. Pet interests or hobbies are fertile ground for potentially valuable patents. Just as Neil Young shows.

Like many people, Young developed an interest in trains as a child and continued collecting into adulthood. The income from being a rock legend allowed him to build a dedicated model train building on his property and to purchase a partial ownership stake in Lionel, the famed model train manufacturer.

Not content to simply own a train company, Young invented and patented a number of control systems for model trains, some of which involve complicated electrical systems that would make any electrical engineer proud. Several of these patents are assigned to Lionel and are a potential source of revenue. There is no shortage of musicians with patents on instruments, but Young wisely did not limit his patenting activities to his day job.

Give credit where credit is due. There is one more obvious lesson to be culled from celebrity inventors: Everyone who contributes to the conception of an invention must be listed as an inventor on the patent. A patent is invalid if the inventorship information is incorrect. That is why the names of many celebrities, who otherwise meticulously guard their privacy, appear on patents.

And by following guidelines like these, you too may one day join the ranks of the rich, famous—and inventive.

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