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Auto engineer wins first Lemelson prize

The inaugural $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention and innovation has gone to General Motors engineer William J. Bolander, 34, for work that led to several major improvements that enhanced passenger safety and increased automotive performance.

The Lemel-son-MIT Prize Program also presented its first Lifetime Achievement Awards (nonmonetary) to electronics pioneers William R. Hewlett and David Packard, the founders in 1939 of Hewlett-Packard Co.

The Lemelson-MIT Awards-intended to promote young people's interest in careers in science and engineering-were announced March 29 at a news conference at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. A ceremony and reception that evening at the Smithsonian's Flag Hall honored the recipients and also the founders of the prize.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation's largest single award for invention and innovation, was established last year by inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. Mr. Lemelson holds more than 500 patents, the fourth largest patent portfolio in the nation's history.

MIT President Charles M. Vest, who presided at the reception, saluted "the extraordinary vision and generosity" of Mr. Lemelson and his wife. "He and Dolly have chosen to turn the fruits of a lifetime of creativity to programs that will help sustain America's leadership in invention and innovation."

Dr. Vest said MIT is "proud to have been entrusted with the responsibility of implementing this vision, a task that is commensurate with our mission as an educational institution. It is our hope, as well as Jerry's and Dolly's, that the achievements-and the people-we celebrate tonight will encourage more of our nation's youth to seek the special challenges and rewards of pursuing a career in science or engineering, and in so doing, to carry America forward to a future of continued progress and prosperity."

The Lemelson-MIT Prize program is administered at MIT under the direction of Professor Lester C. Thurow, an internationally respected expert in economics and public policy and former dean of the Sloan School of Management. He chairs the prize committee. Dr. Thurow is the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor of Management and Economics at the Sloan School. The prize and the professorship are elements of a $6.5 million initiative at MIT by the Lemelsons to foster innovation and invention.

In his keynote remarks at the reception, Professor Thurow said that American leadership in science and technology is, in many ways, an accidental development driven by World War II and the cold war.

"But what one gains accidentally is easily lost. Having gained pre-eminence without effort, it is easy to come to believe that one is uniquely talented and that one does not need to work to enjoy effortless superiority. Yet without care and a willingness to both preserve the system of invention and innovation where it needs preservation and improve it where it needs improving, the necessary investments in human capital will not be made."

Professor Thurow saluted Mr. Bolander for demonstrating that no matter how mature a technology like the auto may be, "there is always room for great improvements in anything we do." He also praised the Lemelsons for their vision in providing a way to encourage "individuals to take the risks that are necessary to be creative inventor-innovators."

Mr. Bolander holds nine US patents for innovations associated with controlling the automobile engine and transmission. He spent 10 years as a member of the team that helped develop the first Saturn automobile, introduced in 1990. One of his inventions led to the development of Saturn's award-winning and low-cost system to recover traction in skids. While at GMI Management and Engineering Institute, Mr. Bolander helped developed the "limp-home" technology GM uses in the Cadillac Northstar line. The invention is a system that allows a half of the pistons in a V-8 engine to shut down automatically if there is a sudden loss of cooling fluid. By cutting fuel to half the pistons and alternating which half are stopped, heat build-up is avoided and the driver can "limp home" or to a service station without engine damage.

Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were honored for their innovations over more than four decades, including the world's first scientific hand-held calculator, the first desktop mainframe computer and inkjet printing. They were also honored for "forging a unique style of management at their company that focuses on fostering creativity among its employees."

Also speaking at the news conference or the evening reception were Provost Mark S. Wrighton; Dean Glen L. Urban of the Sloan School; Dr. Bernard Oliver of Hewlett-Packard, who accepted for the award winners, who could not attend because of ill health; I. Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian; and Paul B. MacCready, the inventor whose human-powered plane first flew across the English channel.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 5, 1995.

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