Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008 | For almost 30 years, Ilan Samson has made a living inventing objects that make life a little easier. From his homes in Israel and England, he has created nail clippers for the physically disabled, measuring tape with a built-in pen, award-winning breast pumps that conform to their users’ chests and a magnet to attract fat away from the everyday stew.
Now, he has moved to San Diego and is developing a calculator prototype with the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2 — a research partnership between the University of California’s San Diego and Irvine campuses. The calculator, named QAMA (which stands for “quick approximate mental arithmetic” and means “how much” in Hebrew), requires students to input an estimate before the calculator will surrender the actual answer.
By thinking along with the calculator, Samson said, students can be much more aware and hands-on with their learning. In the upcoming weeks, Calit2 will distribute a rough line of calculators to local schools like High Tech High and the Preuss School, he said, to be tested by both students and teachers.
A graduate of Imperial College with a degree in physics and music, Samson worked as an operations researcher for 20 years before becoming an inventor. We caught up with Samson at the UCSD Joan and Irwin Jacobs School of Engineering to discuss the difficulties of patenting an invention, his latest projects, math education, sippy cups and continental drift.
You just arrived to San Diego a few weeks ago to develop a calculator prototype with Calit2 and a rough version of the calculator will be landing in local high schools soon for a test run. What were you thinking when you first thought of this calculator 10 years ago?
The idea was to build a calculator that only gives you the result after the student has done some amount of thinking up to the level that is reasonable to do — namely in the way of offering an estimate to the calculator.
The thought was that if this were a calculator to use in the classroom, that would mean that every time a student touches a calculator, they have to do some thinking. Even if they can’t estimate the answer correctly, the mere fact that they’re asking themselves how much it is, just showing interest, is a big change.
Tell me about your thought process when you’re inventing.
An invention needs to start with an idea, which by definition is something which you cannot deduce. The idea itself on its own is useless, until it is realized in the form of a product. And usually as soon as you start trying to develop it, it turns out that it can’t be done for any of many reasons — too complicated or whatever. The work that is involved in overcoming these difficulties, that is the difficult bit. I always claim that contrary to what people think, it is not a matter of persistence, but a matter of idiotic persistence.
However it is not possible to sit down and try to do what people call “think of an idea.” I often can’t recall what led me to an idea. Therefore I constantly find myself being involved in topics which a day earlier I had nothing to do with. I never had the ambition to be the inventor of most of the one-handed breast pumps, it just happened.
Is it unusual that you derive all of your income from your inventions?
In England, I’m usually told by all the patent agents that they don’t know of anybody else who lives off of invention royalties alone.
And how did you get into the business? What was your first invention?
I did operations research for some 20 years, and one day decided that I had had enough of programming. That was in 1980. And I then wanted to try out whether this business of invention can be actually made to work, so I took the first idea that came into my mind, and that was making a reclining chair that if you lift your arms a bit, it follows the body weight, and if you sit up, it moves back.
In a very misleading manner, this first recliner was selling six months after I presented it to the largest German furniture manufacturer. I later found out that if something takes three years to get realized, it is very fast. Most people say they’ve “found somebody who is very interested,” but that, I discovered, means nothing. In this whole business 99 percent of the journey is practically equal to zero.
What makes you say that?
Because usually things fall apart somewhere along the way, and usually right at the end. To get the manufacturer to develop the product, make the tools — which is expensive — get the patent applied and accepted, get the industrial prototypes made, get them to pass user trials, and then being put into production and selling properly, and getting the royalties and the royalty checks passing the bank … that’s a long journey.
There are three high points in the procedure. One is when you get the idea, and you find out that it can be made to work by a very crude prototype — which I make immediately. The next high point is when you first receive a prototype from the manufacturer, because if they have already spent money on tools, it means that they believe in it, and that is pretty much the point of no return. And the third high point is when you see it on the shelves for the first time. In between there is a very bitter and difficult process of overcoming all the endless difficulties, the smallest of which can trip the whole thing.
You recently wrote a book called “Demathtifying: Demystifying Mathematics” to make the process of learning math fun and understandable for students. Do you see the QAMA calculator and this book as related?
They are both intended to bypass thoughtless performance. Most of what happens in math education is showing students how to perform tasks. It relatively rarely involves making it clear why these methods work. One way or another teachers do try to explain, but you should never say “this is how it is” without making sure all the details are there. It should never be GNT — only God and the Teacher know.
But the problem is children, and most of us too, find it difficult to distinguish between a pretend explanation and a real explanation; if the public could do that, politicians would probably have a very hard time, they’d keep quiet! When a student believes that something has been explained to him, he may think, “I still don’t understand it, so it must be me.”
The fact is, most people believe that they are bad at math. And this is very wrong, because kids play games which are more complex than anything that happens in school math, and they play them accurately — computer games, or even sports games. They have so many rules. It’s not that math is actually too difficult. The problem is that the very simplest explanations are not provided fully.
Have you ever had an idea for an invention, only to discover that someone else had already invented it?
There were some close shaves. For instance, with the recliner, that was probably the worst one. I was living in Israel then — I come from Israel – and I thought I had invented the reclining chair, because in Israel they had not been made or imported then.
Then, when I went abroad to show it to manufacturers, I discovered by that time in America things like that had existed for 25 years and I think six million of these were selling every year. But, very fortunately, some German engineers showed me a library of 1,044 patents — only a German engineer would have some library like that — and it turned out that the method that I came up for doing so was different from what everybody else was doing.
Have your products ever been challenged by anyone?
Licensees of mine have been challenged by competitors. We have several times challenged others who put something on the market which I claimed was using my patent, whether they did it intentionally or not. In all cases we always won, without even going to court. It happens with about 20 percent of my inventions, 20 percent meaning it’s not something that happens only once in 20 years, but on the other hand it is far from the majority.
How many inventions have you patented?
At some point I stopped counting, but it must be at least 25.
Which is your latest invention, which has come to complete fruition?
The latest products are these sippy cups, which will be launched in September at the Cologne Trade Fair. There’s something that I find remarkable — most parents, I ask them, “Have you ever tried to drink from this cup?” And they usually say “Well, no,” and then they try it and say, “Oh, that is blocked.” And I say “No, it’s not blocked, that’s how they are.” The babies don’t complain because they’re not yet at the age where they can sue. They’re thirsty … so this is the only cup that is totally easy to drink from, and totally spill-proof.
I always try to come with something that I can demonstrate will work, without using any words. For instance with these sippy cups, the major manufacturer in Europe, in America, to decide to go into it, by just taking one sip. One of them in Australia nearly choked because they were used to sucking very hard and they took a suck and the thing just gushed in.
How did you engineer sippy cup’s lid?
I invented valves through a configuration that is very unobvious … when something wants to come from the inside outwards, it pushes [the valve] closed. The more it tries to push its way out, the tighter it locks the valve. The tiniest suction will make the thing open, and it is totally easy to drink from and is still spill-proof.
How long have you lived in England?
I’m ashamed to say. I was in Imperial College, that was in the 60s. Why England changed so much since then I don’t think anybody understands. My biggest regret in life is … well, I don’t know if you know, the continents drifted a long time ago. I wish they would have drifted so that Israel would have been near the United States, then it probably would have become part of it, Israel would have been the 51st state of America. Or perhaps Israel may have proposed that the United States become the second state of Israel.
And now you are in San Diego …
We are here to stay, because this is the place where people do things. They’re enthusiastic, as opposed to Europe where they cleverly talk about things.
Is there anything frustrating about the inventing profession?
There’s one very big problem with being an inventor. It doesn’t bother me so much, but everything as you know has the originator’s name on it. You always have the author, the designer, the architect — but on inventions the product never carries the name of the inventor. And that is quite frustrating.
We had some friends whose wife wrote a novel and the novel did extremely well and sold 800,000 copies. They stopped answering phone calls, they became important. And one day I don’t remember if I told them directly or through a friend, but at least 10 million units of my inventions have been sold, and nobody knows about me because the products do not carry the inventor’s name. You might have sold a couple hundred thousand books, but I sold a couple million products, and I still return phone calls!
— Interview by