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Luther G. Simjian

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Biography

Luther G. Simjian held over two hundred patents in electronics, optics, and related fields, inventing devices as varied and fundamental to modern life as the flight simulator and the automatic teller machine.

Simjian was born in Turkey in 1905 and immigrated to the United States at age 16, after receiving his early education in the Middle East and France. He moved in with an uncle who lived in New Haven, Connecticut. After finishing high school, he began working at the photography laboratory at the Yale University Medical School. He became so adept with a camera that he decided to put aside his dream of becoming a doctor and focus on medical photography. In 1928, he became the first director of a newly created department of photography at Yale Medical School. There, he patented several devices, including the self-focusing camera in 1932 and a color X-ray machine in 1934.

During World War II, Simjian, horrified at the deaths of many of his friends in airplanes, invented the Optical Range Estimation Trainer. It was the first flight simulator and was used to train pilots and tail gunners.

Simjian founded Reflectone in 1939, which later merged with the Universal Match Company in the 1960s. Eventually, it was turned into an independent public company and sold for $90 million to the British Aerospace Company in 1997. Simjian founded two other companies, General Research Inc. and Command Automation Inc., as umbrella companies for his diverse portfolio of inventions.

These inventions included a remote controlled postage meter, a method for tenderizing meat, a supersonic device used for ultrasound procedures, an indoor golf simulator, and a process used to improve the resonance of wood for musical instruments.

He obtained more than twenty patents in the 1960s for the concepts that underlay the modern automatic teller machine, such as the idea of a device that could take deposits and give money at any hour.

Interestingly, this idea was first adopted by on a trial basis by Citicorp, but the bank decided not to pursue it because of its limited market. Most customers did not trust their money to a faceless machine; in fact, users tended to be gamblers and prostitutes, who preferred not to encounter a teller on the other end of the transaction.

He received the Eli Whitney Award from the Connecticut Patent Law Association for his life’s work in 1978.