Inventing GeniusYoshiro Nakamatsu makes many bold claims to fame. His resume lists him as one of the five greatest scientists in history, alongside Archimedes, Michael Faraday, Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla. But he prefers to be known as the inventor of the floppy disk, the CD, the digital watch and a grand total of 3,218 inventions at last count.
Such a feat would make Nakamatsu the world’s most prolific inventor, well ahead of Thomas Edison, who logged 1,093. Nakamatsu’s unconventional mind has made him a celebrity among tinkerers, academics and bureaucrats alike. Dozens of awards from such sources plaster the walls of his office, situated in Akasaka, one of the most expensive office districts in Tokyo, and conveniently located a short walk from the Japanese patent office.
A visit to Nakamatsu’s “laboratory” begins with a video pastiche of his achievements, honours ceremonies and television appearances, played on a giant flat screen set among a jumble of inventions in one corner. One sequence shows him welcomed to the United States by President George Bush. Squashed under the documents, diagrams and models stacked deep on his desk lies his latest award, the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, awarded for outstanding service to the community.
The sprightly 73-year-old’s inventive streak showed itself when he was 5 years old. He created an automatic gravity controller for a model plane that he says makes autopilot possible. His parents took up a family friend’s advice to patent the device. The patent has expired, and he earns no royalties from autopilot systems. But subsequent patents have made Nakamatsu a wealthy man.
One invention for which he says he still holds the patent is a plastic kerosene pump that can be found in any hardware store. He invented the pump at the age of 14. Another invention he made that year was a heat pump. The pump compresses carbon dioxide or air to generate heat and is used in air conditioners.
Nakamatsu’s greatest fame stems from his efforts in 1948 to shrink the size of phonograph records and eliminate the scratchy quality of their sound. Nakamatsu, then 20, used fine wood for a “floppy media and drive.” He completed the project two years later at Tokyo Imperial University’s Engineering School. The drive could be read with magnetic and light sensors. He received a Japanese patent for the disk invention in 1952, which he points out was 20 years before IBM secured a US patent and 28 years before Sony and Philips Electronics released the compact disc in 1980.
Nakamatsu considers his vision of a method of digitising analog technology to have been “the beginning of Silicon Valley and the information technology revolution.” IBM now owns the patent for the floppy disk, but the company struck a number of computer-related patent agreements with Nakamatsu in the 1970s. Nakamatsu also lays claim to having invented a digital watch in 1953, well before Hamilton Watch Corporation developed the famed LED display Pulsar in 1970.
Nakamatsu attributes his inventive drive to early childhood experiences. His mother, who attended Tokyo Women’s University, began teaching him physics, mathematics and chemistry when he was only 3 years old. A portrait of his mother sits on his desk, and a metre-high print of her leans against a whiteboard behind him. Nakamatsu says his interest in model aeroplanes was also a factor. He built them and competed with his young cousins on how far they would fly. This competition, along with his mother’s teaching, fuelled his drive.
The key to successful innovation, according to Nakamatsu, is “freedom of intelligence.” By this he means working with no strings attached. Nakamatsu says he has never sought funding from any person, company or government and prefers to develop and produce his own inventions. “If you ask or borrow money from other people, you cannot keep freedom of intelligence,” he says simply.
His company – Dr NakaMats Innovation Institute – has independently developed brands of Yummi Nutri Brain biscuits and tea meant to improve cognitive function. Then there is the Love-Jet, a spray he says will increase sexual stimulation three-fold, due to an ingredient that prompts the body to produce more of the adrenal gland hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Nakamatsu has not granted licence rights to companies other than IBM, which held 70 percent of the computer market at the time their agreements were reached.
“If I license an invention, sometimes the company will not make what I really want,” he explains. “If I make it myself, I can make it my ideal product.”
As wondrous as Nakamatsu’s capacity for invention seems to be, it is perhaps matched by his personal regimen for maximising creativity and longevity. The inventor says he has consumed only his own products for 30 years. He sleeps just four hours a night and believes more than six hours is unhealthy. Yet he does look considerably younger than his age. Nakamatsu says people can live 144 years if they follow his advice.
“So I’m only in the middle of my life,” he says. “I can make almost double as many inventions. I said 3,218, so maybe by the end of my life, 6,000 is possible.”
Nakamatsu is critical of people who approach inventing as merely a tool for making money – “similar to investing in stocks, or gambling.” This approach, he says, often leads to failure.
“My spirit of invention is completely different,” Nakamatsu says. “My spirit is love. Take, for example, the kerosene pump I invented. I loved my mother, and so I wished to make my mother’s work easier in the kitchen.”
Nakamatsu also believes in dogged persistence. When faced with the choice of an easy way and a difficult way, he says, people inevitably choose the easy way. “But I always go the difficult way,” he says. “And I enjoy it. There is a world there that is completely unknown to people looking for the easy way.”
Among the Nakamatsu’s many ideas is a cigarette that he says makes a person smarter, and a chair that cools a person’s head and warms his feet to induce clarity of thought. Nakamatsu has also created a water-powered engine, which he calls Enerex. It’s this engine, unveiled in 1990, that lies at the heart of Nakamatsu’s assertion that he invented the fuel cell.
Energy generation remains the most fertile area for future inventions, Nakamatsu says. Among the 500 projects he has on the go is a “next generation” house, crammed with new technology – from an improved form of cement, to the “world’s smallest toilet” and a new take on stairs. The house is powered not from the regular electricity grid but from what Nakamatsu calls “cosmic” energy.
“We receive much power from cosmic sources,” Nakamatsu says. “In the past we never used such energy.”
Nakamatsu says he has 50 patents on cosmic energy technology, but when pressed for details, he declines, chuckling. “It is my invention,” he says. And we have 71 years or so to see exactly what he means.
foreign editor for the Japan Times, based in Tokyo
photo Bruce Osborn