First $30,000 Lemelson Student Prize
For Inventiveness Awarded at MIT
MIT graduate student Thomas Massie recognized
for outstanding creativity and innovation
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thomas H. Massie, a second year M.I.T.
graduate student in mechanical engineering, was the recipient of
the first annual $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness.
Massie has demonstrated his talents in such diverse areas as solar
cars, robotics, computer interfaces, a plant watering device, and
a weaving machine. He has started his own company, SensAble Technologies,
to market his invention of the PHANToM, a haptic computer interface.
The Prize was established with funding from Jerome Lemelson, the
nation's most prolific living inventor, and his wife Dorothy, to
encourage more students to pursue careers in science and engineering
by rewarding star student inventors. Mr. Lemelson, an engineer by
training, holds more than 500 patents.
"It's the intellectual equivalent of a football scholarship,"
said Lester C. Thurow, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Professor
of Management and Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management
and overseer of the Prize. "In our society, the athletes typically
get all the big awards and the attention. We need to create role
models for people involved in creative intellectual pursuits."
By all accounts, Mr. Massie fills the bill.
"Thomas Massie is one of the most inventive and productive
students I have encountered in my 12 years at MIT," said Dr.
Kenneth Salisbury, principal research scientist at MIT's Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory and one of the three people who nominated
Mr. Massie for the Prize. "He has an uncanny knack for asking
all the important questions, and then he goes ahead and answers
Perhaps Mr. Massie's most intriguing invention, created in collaboration
with Salisbury, is an ingenious desktop "touch interface"
for a computer. By inserting fingers into special swiveling thimbles
mounted at the end of small computer-controlled mechanical arms,
a person can "feel" and "manipulate" objects
on the screen of different shapes, sizes, and textures, ranging
from bouncing rubber balls to virtual keyboards.
The device showed such promise that Mr. Massie started a company
called SensAble Technologies in his on-campus apartment over 18
months ago to develop and market it. Potential early applications
range from surgical training to computer-aided design programs that
allow designers to touch or interact with their designs. Eventually,
the device may lead to an entirely new generation of video games.
A native of Kentucky, Mr. Massie showed promise long before he
came to MIT. "As long as I can remember, I was always taking
things apart," he recalls. "I was in the fourth grade
before I started putting them back together again." But when
he did, he would make something new. In seventh grade, for example,
he built his first robot arm from materials scrounged from appliances
and other items around the house. He also built an automatic plant-watering
device triggered by sensing the conductivity of the soil.
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As a ninth grader, he saw MIT's well-known undergraduate design
contest on television and decided he wanted to come to MIT to win
it. With his characteristic resolve, he applied to MIT when he was
a senior, got accepted, took the class, and won.
While an undergraduate in electrical engineering, he worked on
problems in mechanical design, electronic interfacing, computer
control, and sensor development at the Artificial Intelligence Lab
under the auspices of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
He also joined MIT's solar car club, and became so intrigued with
a hand weaving technique from the Andes he read about in one of
his classes that he designed and built a machine that simulated
the process. He even found the time to "hack" (MIT slang
for a prank) the electronically controlled blackboards in MIT's
main science lecture hall, programming them to move at 1:45 pm every
"I'm just amazed that there's an award for doing something
that is so much fun and so rewarding in itself," Massie said,
reflecting on his winnings. He plans to donate a portion of it to
his high school to support math and science activities.
MIT seniors graduating in June and MIT graduate students were eligible
for the Prize. Candidates were evaluated for their track record
for inventing, the creativity of their solutions, the diversity
of their talents, the potential for societal benefit of their work,
the potential for commercial success of their inventions, and the
enthusiasm of their nominators.
The Prize jury consisted of five MIT alumni/ae Leslie M. Compton,
materials engineer at Altran Materials Engineering; Matthew K. Haggerty,
President and CEO of Product Genesis, Inc.; Richard E. Heitman,
President of Venture Support Associates; Krisztina Holly, Vice President
for Product Development, Stylus Innovation; and Neil Pappalardo,
Chairman and CEO, Medical Information Technologies.
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994
by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife,
Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through
outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest
for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages
young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering,
technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded
by The Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives
at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire
College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance
and the University of Nevada, Reno.
Read more about Thomas Massie.
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