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Kane wins $30,000 Lemelson invention prize

Nathan Kane, who designed his own model airplanes as a child and remodeled the family home while in college to make it dust-free to alleviate his father's allergies, has received the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness.

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an MIT graduating senior or graduate student. Mr. Kane, 28, a PhD candidate in precision machine design, was cited for the breadth of his projects--he holds one patent and has five pending--and his work with middle and high school students in Cambridge. The announcement was made yesterday (February 11), Thomas Edison's 150th birthday, at the Faculty Club by Professor Lester Thurow, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson professor of management and Economics at the Sloan School and chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Committee.

"Young inventors such as Kane keep America on the forefront in the race for new and better technologies, which boosts the economy and creates jobs," Professor Thurow said. "As we enter the 21st century, it is these young inventors who will lead the charge into new product development."

Mr. Kane, who grew up in Austin and holds the BS and an MS in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, plans to use the prize money to pay for patent applications and make prototypes of his inventions.

Among his inventions are a family of low-distortion ultralight bellows with unique fold patterns that allow them to extend the device two to three times farther than traditional folds, reducing material cost, weight and the compressed length of the bellows. He is refining this invention in a cluttered room in the basement of Building 35.

"Young inventors such as Nathan are the reasons why I established the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program and the Lemelson National Program," said Dr. Jerome H. Lemelson. "Young people represent an untapped source of creative and entrepreneurial energy. We need to inspire them to develop new products and socially responsible, marketable solutions to contemporary dilemmas." Dr. Lemelson, the nation's most prolific inventor, has more than 500 patents, including inventions incorporated into the Sony Walkman and personal computers.

Besides the bellows, Mr. Kane's inventions include an air supply mask with a self-retracting hose that increases worker mobility, a modular hydrostatic bearing called the HydroMax (co-invented with his advisor, Alexander Slocum, the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering), an opaque projector for children called Project-a-Sketch (co-invented with several MIT colleagues), and the Pass-It football, which holds a built-in TV remote control device (co-invented with last year's Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner, David Levy).

Professor Slocum and Mr. Levy convinced Mr. Kane to apply for this year's Lemelson prize, and Professors Slocum and Sanjay Sarma wrote recommendations. Professor Slocum described Mr. Kane's bellows as "a major breakthrough."

Mr. Kane said he and Mr. Levy were goofing around when they conceived the idea of using a toy football to house a TV remote control device--"I started out thinking about using a Frisbee and then David suggested using a football"--which can be fun as well as practical. True to his Texas roots, Mr. Kane watches as much football as he can on television; he said he caught Patriot fever last season and abandoned the Houston Oilers.

Noting his work with youngsters in developing a Junior Solar Sprint Car race at the Haggerty Middle School and with high school students in creating the "Recycler Contest," Mr. Kane rejects any suggestion that he is a research hermit. "If being a nerd implies that I have a boring life, that's not true," he said. "If being a nerd means that I am totally involved in inventing, that may be true. I love what I'm doing."

Besides football, his outside interests include jogging, rock music from the '80s and cult movies. He is a great fan of the LSC movie program. "You see last summer's hits for $2," he said. "You can't beat that."

Mr. Kane built model airplanes while in first grade and quickly graduated to designing his own gliders, hoping to achieve greater efficiency. In redesigning his parent's home, he modified the ventilation system to make it easier to clean, made the vacuum cleaner more efficient, put the furniture on wheels, removed the rugs and refinished the floors. It was gratifying when his father, Robert, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, experienced tremendous relief from his allergies.

After receiving the MS from Texas, Mr. Kane applied to MIT because he wanted to join a "community of inventors." He would like to remain here after he receives his doctorate next year.

Both previous winners of the award formed companies to market their inventions. Mr. Levy, who has patented a credit-card-sized computer keypad, founded TH Inc. (Think). The 1995 winner, Thomas Massie, started SensAble Technologies for his computer touchscreen interface.

In addition to the student award, the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program presents an annual national $500,000 award for invention and innovation and a Lifetime Achievement Award in April.

For more infornmation on the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, visit the Inventions Dimension, a clearinghouse for invention information, on the Web at <>.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 1997.

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