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Range Estimation Trainer
Luther George Simjian was a lifelong innovator whose inventions
include the self-focusing camera, a flight speed indicator
for airplanes, an automatic postage metering machine, teleprompter,
Range Estimation Trainer and contributions to the evolution
of the Bankmatic automatic teller machine (ATM).
Simjian was born in Turkey on January 28, 1905. As a young
child he developed a keen interest in optics and photography.
After World War I he was separated from his family. He fled
to Beirut, then on to Marseille, and eventually to the United
States. At age 15 he arrived in the U.S. alone, and went to
New Haven, Connecticut, where he stayed with relatives and
found self-sufficiency through a job with a photographer.
Simjian originally intended to study medicine, but changed
his mind after the medical school at Yale gave him a job in
its photographic laboratory. In 1928 he was named director
of the photography department at the medical school, and he
soon developed a way of projecting microscopic images and
photographing specimens under water.
In 1934 Simjian moved to New York, where he developed a color
X-ray machine and a self-posing portrait camera, allowing
the subject to look into a mirror and see exactly the picture
that was about to be taken. Soon after, Simjian established
a company to license and manufacture the camera for use in
department store studios. He eventually sold the camera and
rights to the Photoreflex name. However, he renamed the company
he had started to Reflectone and continued to explore developments
in optics, electro-mechanical devices, and the new field of
electronics. When Simjian initially came up with the idea
of creating a hole-in-the-wall machine that would allow customers
to make financial transactions, the idea was met with a great
deal of skepticism. Starting in 1939, Simjian registered 20
patents related to the device and persuaded what is now Citicorp
to give it a trial. After six months, the bank reported that
there was little demand.
"It seems the only people using the machines were a small
number of prostitutes and gamblers who didn't want to deal
with tellers face to face," wrote Simjian.
Later, of course, the idea caught on, and today, modern versions
of the automatic teller machine stand on nearly every street
corner. Despite the notoriety that came with his ATM concept,
Simjian's most important invention of the era during World
War II was his Range Estimation Trainer, designed to improve
the methods used to train Allied pilots. Using a miniature
airplane, synchronized moving mirrors, and controlled lighting,
he built a device that would allow an instructor to remotely
vary speed, lighting, and angles. This simulator could be
used to train aviators in identifying types of aircraft and
determining their distance and speed. The U.S. Navy was very
interested in these devices; Reflectone sold more than 2000
trainers, which were used all over the country.
Simjian remained President and Chairman of Reflectone for
22 years, until the company merged with Universal Match Corp.
in 1961. It was sold again in 1996 to British Aerospace. Meanwhile
Simjian formed two other companies, General Research and Command
Automation, to help to capitalize on his other inventions,
which included a remote-controlled postage meter, a meat tenderizer
and an ultrasound device for use in hospitals. He also patented
an indoor golf practice range, using an analog computer to
project the "flight" of the ball. Toward the end of his life
Simjian built a small research and development lab in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, and continued inventing until his death
on October 23, 1997. Simjian was issued his last patent recently
-- in March of 2000 he received a patent for a process to
improve the resonance of wood used for musical instruments.
[Updated: Aug 2003]