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INVENTOR TRIES TO FOSTER INGENUITY

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One of the nation's top inventors is trying to spread the creativity around.

Jerome Lemelson, inventor of key parts of the VCR, fax machine and portable cassette player, is trying to revive the spirit of invention with the National Program in Invention, Innovation and Creativity."America's greatest natural resource remains American ingenuity," said Lemelson, 71, who holds more than 500 patents.

"If you go back to the turn of the century, the talk of the town was not basketball or rock stars, but invention," he said. "We learned about inventions . . . in a way that is not done today."

His goal? "Countless business ventures that produce countless new American products . . . that will protect the strength of our economy and our position as a world leader."

Lemelson has spent about $10 million of his own money on multidisciplinary classes, seminars, workshops, meetings, fellowships and a $500,000 prize. The program includes a network of several dozen colleges around the country.

"Our culture has tended to look at the inventor as the odd person," said Gregory Prince, president of Hampshire College in Amherst, which participates in the program. "We celebrate Westinghouse; we laugh at the tinkerer."

At Hampshire, students tinker with real-world problems in a potentially marketable way.

"It's just the opposite of traditional learning," said Penina Glazer, academic director of the Hampshire program. "First, you get the problem. Then you figure out all the things you have to do to get the required skills."

For example, a group of students trying to invent a better harness for dogs that pull people in wheelchairs had to study existing harnesses, canine anatomy and genetics, and the physics of motion.

"It's not something someone has already figured out," student Micah Jessup said. "We taught ourselves what we need to do this project."

Working without structure can be tough, said Ellen Siedlecki, a Hampshire student working to improve farm technology.

"I know how to write a paper. I don't know how to put something together."