WASHINGTON – In what was casually dubbed the “Academy Awards” for inventors, a Michigan engineer received a $500,000 prize Wednesday for his work to increase passenger safety and car performance for General Motors Corp. and Saturn Corp.
William J. Bolander, 34, the owner of nine U.S. patents for automotive inventions, became the first recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Prize, created to honor excellence in creativity, invention and innovation.
The program’s organizers called it the nation’s largest single prize for inventors.
“Compared to what they received a few nights ago at the Academy Awards, this is much nicer,” said Dr. Lester Thurow, the program committee chairman and an economist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bolander, who is married with two sons, said he doesn’t have any immediate plans for the prize money.
He also received a lead crystal award.
Thurow said the committee received nearly 4,000 nominating letters. Three selection committees narrowed the list.
“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing that my ideas have resulted in something that is of value to people,” Bolander said at the ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The prize program also named Hewlett-Packard Co. founders, William Hewlitt, 81, and David Packard, 82, as co-recipients of a separate award for lifetime achievements. The two engineers formed the California-based international manufacturer of computer printers, scientific calculators and other products in 1939.
Thurow said part of the program’s purpose is to “bang the drums and say you can have an exciting, profitable, good life as an inventor and innovator.”
Bolander developed a love of cars from his father, a physics professor at GMI Engineering & Management Institute in Michigan.
While an undergraduate at the institute, Bolander developed technology that would protect a car from engine damage for nearly 50 miles after a sudden loss of coolant.
Before joining GM last year, he worked for Saturn for 10 years as part of the team that helped develop the company’s first car. One of his inventions led to the development of Saturn’s traction control system, which helps prevent drivers from losing control on wet or icy roads.
The prize program is open to all American inventors and innovators who work for private industry, the government or universities and make contributions in areas such as medicine, the environment, telecommunications and consumer products, said inventor Jerome Lemelson, for whom the program was named.
Lemelson holds more than 500 patents for inventions such as the camcorder and the VCR.
The program is one component of his $6.5 million donation to MIT in 1993. The $500,000 prize will be awarded annually for the next three years, then reviewed by organizers to determine if it should continue.
Lemelson said a major goal is to generate more inventors and innovators as role models. The program defines an innovator as someone who takes an invention of another to create a marketable product.
“Through the Lemelson-MIT Prize, we can provide young Americans with inspirational role models like Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard and Bill Bolander,” Lemelson said.
He said he thought it fitting to announce the award recipients at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History because so many youngsters visit during the year. “We want to convey the idea that a lot more people should aim for this than to be an NBA star,” Thurow said. -30-