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This tinkerer's literal light bulb of discovery was halogen

A bomb disposer, bulb creator, "mad-scientist father," and inveterate inventor, Elmer Fridrich has been puttering – and patenting – for over 50 years.

By Wendy A. HokeCorrespondent / July 16, 2008

Father of invention: Elmer Fridrich, standing in his basement workshop, is still trying to improve the halogen bulb.

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Munson Township, Ohio

On a cloudy night in 1953, as Peggy Danielson drove home through the rolling hills of eastern Ohio, she noticed a bright light shining into the sky. She thought it was an advertising searchlight, but as she neared her house, she saw that the light shone from her own backyard.

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“Dad had put a tiny little lamp of his own making into a huge reflector to see if he could get the light to shine to the clouds,” says Ms. Danielson. It was one more experiment by a man who would continue to tinker for the next half-century, acquiring dozens of patents – including one for the first functional halogen bulb.

Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp – made from a carbon filament – had dominated American lighting until the early 1900s, says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Elmer Fridrich’s tungsten halogen lamp, which used iodine to prevent deposits of evaporated tungsten inside the bulb, “was the first major improvement of the Edison lamp.”

Sure, other researchers tweaked the process. But Mr. Wallace credits Mr. Fridrich with the initial discovery. The Smithsonian has recognized Fridrich’s contributions to lighting, adding his original patent document to its collection and featuring him in an upcoming exhibition on lighting 100 years after Edison. And The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America listed him sixth (just after Edison) in its 2006 list of lighting pioneers.

This shy, slightly eccentric man, who’d started his work at General Electric (GE) as a machinist on the night shift, had become the father of a device that would transform lighting. Now 88, the “mad scientist father” continues to tinker: He holds 33 US patents (31 of which are owned by GE) and has several more pending.

Not bad for college dropout.

“I was impressed with his capabilities as a researcher,” says Derry Stauffer, a patent agent and engineer who worked with Fridrich at GE and now works with him on his patents. “He talked like a PhD and had ideas like a PhD.” Only he wasn’t.

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A slight man with a soft voice, Fridrich wears a fleece jacket even on a summer afternoon: He’s always cold. Periodically, his voice fades and he pauses to wet his whistle. But his mind is electric, flashing through problems to solutions, to new problems, and then to solutions for those.

As a child in the Depression, Fridrich loved to play with fireworks and other explosives. But mostly he was curious about mixtures that produced them – an inquisitiveness that led him to injure his eye and scar his palm.

His parents were entrepreneurial, starting Fridrich Moving and Storage, and Fridrich shares their waste-not, want-not outlook. He finds treasure in trash: He once sliced open a golf club’s shaft, sharpened the edges, and made a cabbage peeler. On his patio, an old computer stand holds firewood.

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