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Lanny Smoot and George Washington Murray among 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees

The 2024 class was announced Wednesday (Jan. 17) at the Walt Disney Imagineering campus in Glendale, Arizona.

Lanny Smoot and George Washington Murray among 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees
Lanny Smoot is considered one of the greatest Black inventors of all time, with over 100 patents. Meanwhile, George Washington Murray transformed the agriculture industry with his patented machinery. Both have been inducted into the 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame. NATIONAL INVENTORS HALL OF FAME PHOTOS

Fifteen trailblazing innovators, whose indispensable inventions span from advancements in cancer treatments to theatrical technologies and special effects, are set to receive recognition in the 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees class.

Black inventors Lanny Smoot and George Washington Murray stand out among this distinguished group.

"For more than 50 years, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has proudly recognized extraordinary creators and innovators," said CEO Michael Oister. "The stories of our class of 2024 — and their world-changing inventions as diverse as cancer treatments, imaging technology, agricultural machinery and the snowmobile — will be incorporated into our children's invention education programs such as our summer and afterschool programs Camp Invention and Invention Project. These programs tap into innate problem-solving skills of educators and students through high-energy, interactive STEM experiences."

a man that is standing in the dark

Disney's greatest inventor

Smoot, an accomplished American electrical engineer, inventor, scientist, and theatrical technology creator, boasts over 100 patents. Widely regarded as Disney's most prolific inventor, Smoot holds a place as one of the most distinguished Black inventors in American history. He pioneered interactive attractions, special effects, novel concepts for ride vehicles, and various technological advancements across Disney's theme parks, attractions, resort hotels, and cruise ships.

Born in 1955, Smoot's early fascination with invention was sparked during his childhood in Brooklyn, New York. Recalling a pivotal moment when his father brought home a battery, an electric bell, and a light bulb, Smoot wired them together, igniting a lifelong passion for science and engineering.

In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Smoot described himself as "continuously curious," attributing his trajectory to the unwavering confidence and freedom granted by his supportive parents.

"My path was paved by people who believed in me," said Smoot.

Educated at Brooklyn Technical High School, Smoot earned a full scholarship to Columbia University as a Bell Labs engineering scholar. His journey included summer work at Bell Labs and a guaranteed full-time position with the company upon graduation. Joining Bell Labs in 1978 after earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering, Smoot invented fibre-optic transmission technologies widely adopted in the Bell telephone system.

Transitioning to Bellcore following the Bell System's breakup, Smoot emerged as the company's patent leader and a Bellcore Fellow — the highest technical honour. Notable inventions included the groundbreaking "VideoWindow," the first high-quality, large-screen video teleconferencing system showcased at the Smithsonian Institution's "Information Age" exhibit. Smoot also held patents for early video streaming systems and the innovative "Electronic Panning Camera" prototype, enabling unlimited users to control views of a remotely televised site.

In 1998, Disney recognized Smoot's talents, leading to his role in managing the company's research arm on Long Island, New York. Later, after relocating to California with the research group, Smoot became Disney's most prolific inventor. His forward-thinking technologies have shaped Disney's offerings and influenced the broader theatrical community, fostering cutting-edge experiences, illusions, and entertainment.

Among Smoot's Disney innovations, the "Where's the Fire?" attraction at EPCOT (2004-2014) utilized "X-ray flashlights" to reveal safety hazards, promoting home safety awareness. Additional patents cover interactive systems such as the "Interactive Koi Ponds" at the Crystal Lotus Restaurant and the Power City attraction at EPCOT's Spaceship Earth. Smoot contributed to interactive scavenger hunts at Disney Parks, including "Kim Possible: World Showcase Adventure" at EPCOT and "Fortress Explorations" at Tokyo DisneySea. For Disney Cruise Line, he played a role in creating interactive, responsive floor surfaces for children.

Recent innovations by Smoot and his group resulted in patenting a retractable, realistic lightsaber in the immersive "Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser" experience. Another patent-pending innovation debuts an interactive lightsaber encounter at "Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser," where visitors can participate in combat evoking the spirit of the "Star Wars" films.

Accolades for Smoot include three Thea Awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), with a designation as a TEA Master in 2020. As a Disney Research Fellow, the company's highest technical honour, Smoot achieved a groundbreaking milestone in 2021, earning his 100th career patent — an unprecedented feat at Disney.

"I chose technology myself, but I believe that every person has a special talent, sometimes multiple talents, and I would love to see a world that exposes more life choices to all people so that their natural talents can bloom," Smoot said.

grayscale photo of a barn in the middle of a field

One of America's greatest farmers and inventors

Meanwhile, George Washington Murray, an African American politician and inventor who previously served as a congressman from South Carolina, has secured his place in the 2024 class. In the late 1800s, Murray transformed agriculture with his patented machinery, significantly expediting planting and harvesting. Born into slavery in Sumter County, South Carolina, in 1853, Murray faced the adversity of losing both parents by the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Despite a lack of formal education, he pursued studies at the University of South Carolina from 1874 until the expulsion of Black students in 1877.

Beyond academic pursuits, Murray diversified as a teacher, landowner, and successful farmer — an exceptional achievement for an enslaved person. By 1880, he possessed 49 acres of cultivated farmland and 15 wooded acres, effectively producing cotton, wood, corn, eggs, butter, and fruit.

Murray's journey began in the early 1880s, inspired by his wife's use of a sewing machine at home. Witnessing the machine's versatility through interchangeable attachments, Murray envisioned adapting his farm equipment similarly, allowing a single machine to perform multiple tasks cost-effectively.

In 1894, Murray's ingenuity secured him eight patents for agricultural machinery. These patents outlined a multifunctional machine equipped with furrow-opening, stalk-knocking, planting, fertilizing, reaping, and distributing attachments. The machine efficiently harvested small grains with intact stalks, distributing sheaves at even intervals along the ground.

Murray's journey extended to the political arena, too. Successfully elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on his second attempt, he served as the sole Black representative in the 53rd and 54th Congresses from 1893 to 1897.

Beyond legislating, Murray advocated for recognizing Black inventors and supporting funding for the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. This event featured an exhibit celebrating the achievements of Black Americans. In a pivotal floor speech in August 1894, Murray underscored the symbolic significance of patents for equality and progress. He introduced "Baker's List," a document by patent examiner Henry E. Baker, listing 92 U.S. patents granted to Black inventors. Congress, moved by Murray's advocacy, approved funding for the exhibition.

Post-Congress, Murray returned to his farm, invested in land, and relocated to Chicago in 1905. He sustained his innovative pursuits in the Windy City, engaging in life insurance and real estate sales, writing books, and working as a professional lecturer. Even while serving as treasurer of a Chicago department store, Murray secured his ninth and final patent — a portable hoisting device designed for use in stores and warehouses.

The Gallery of Icon is a display that names more than 600 inductees as part of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. NATIONAL INVENTORS HALL OF FAME PHOTOS

Ceremonies kick off May 8-9, 2024

The 2024 class was announced Wednesday (Jan. 17) at the Walt Disney Imagineering campus in Glendale, Arizona.

In collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the Hall of Fame will pay tribute to these inductees on May 9 at an event titled "The Greatest Celebration of American Innovation," which will be held in the nation's capital. Emceed by humorist, journalist, and podcast host Mo Rocca, the event schedule includes an illumination ceremony on May 8 at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, and the Induction Ceremony on May 9 at The Anthem in Washington, D.C. The latter will feature a black-tie dinner and ceremony honouring the new inductee class's societal contributions.

To see the full list of inductees, visit the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.