Internet Traffic Cop
The Internet is one of the world’s most congested traffic arteries. That fact has spurred computer scientists to come up with ways to minimize the chaos. One of them is Jonathan Turner ’75, who attended Oberlin under a joint-degree program with Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied computer science.

As a professor of computer science at Washington University, Turner teaches, researches, and creates new electronic devices. He also holds about 25 patents. “I think that qualifies me as an inventor,” he says.

Turner does the kind of work that leaves laymen baffled. “It’s difficult to get into any details of my work with non-technical people. But when I talk about the effects my inventions have on everyday life, people understand why they are useful.”

For instance, fiber optic lines carry many kinds of signals at once—the sound of our voices, streams of numbers, the texts of our e-mails, and pictures. Turner came up with the technology to a make that traffic flow a bit smoother.

Internet traffic—like our paper mail dropped at the post office—needs to be routed so the right messages wind up in the right mailboxes. One of the devices Turner co-invented was an integrated circuit used in high-performance routing systems built by Cisco Systems, the industry leader.

Exploring Deep Space
In our mind’s eye, inventors work in garages, basement workshops, or old sheds. But the creation of some modern inventions is an enormous undertaking, akin to building the great pyramids of Egypt.
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a case in point. “Thousands of people were involved in its creation, perhaps as many as 10,000. And many of them were brilliant,” says Martin Weisskopf ’64, chief scientist for the Chandra project since 1977. The telescope, which has been in the works for decades, cost $2 billion to design, build, and launch into space, and another $60 million a year to operate.

Photo by Douglas K. Stoffee, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

“My job was to make sure everything was done right,” says Weisskopf, who today provides day-to-day technical support for the Chandra from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. “In a project like this, there are lots and lots of small details. I was involved with almost every aspect of the technology. I had my hand in just about everything.”

Weisskopf arrived at Oberlin planning on a career in law, but two things changed: “I got a B in my government course, which clearly told me I was not fit to do law. I also took a course in poet’s physics and had to write a paper on the history of quantum mechanics. I was enthralled by the subject, and got an A.”

After majoring in physics and attending graduate school at Brandeis University, Weisskopf moved on to teach at Columbia University, where he studied X-ray technology.

Chandra focuses not on light, but on the X-rays emitted by some celestial objects. In orbit since 1999, Chandra is attempting to answer some of the major questions of the universe, among them the nature of dark matter. Scientists have found evidence that there is more matter in the universe than can be detected with available instruments. Chandra won’t detect the unseen matter directly, but it may provide clues as to what it is.

Testing a Breakthrough Vaccine
New vaccines aren’t introduced to the public without first testing their effectiveness and safety. When a target market includes children and infants, the testing becomes particularly rigorous.


Photo courtesy of Martha Lepow

Martha Lipson Lepow ’48 oversaw testing for the groundbreaking vaccines used to combat two types of meningitis—A and C. The meningococcal vaccines were first developed by Army researchers to prevent outbreaks among recruits, who lived in crowded barracks and were particularly susceptible to type C, the disease that has also led to deaths among college students. Type A, although rarely found in the United States, has led to lethal outbreaks among infants in Finland and parts of Africa.

Lepow was a faculty member at the University of Connecticut Medical School in the late 1960s when she was approached by a former Army researcher. He suggested they test the meningococcal vaccines on children. “I had the background for the testing, as I had already worked on the Sabin polio vaccine trials,” says Lepow, a professor of pediatrics at Albany Medical College in New York.

Lepow oversaw the design of the vaccine trials, plus the recruitment and testing of subjects, including her own sons, then 9 and 10.

While the vaccine for type C meningitis worked on children but not infants, testing for type A showed protection for both. “The results showed that the vaccine could be used in Africa and Finland, where the disease was epidemic in infants,” she says.

Surround Sound Breakthrough
For most of us, physics is a thoroughly arcane science, however, it has delivered a string of products that have transformed modern life. One of them is surround sound, the invention of Peter Scheiber ’56, a musician with a bent for physics.

Photo courtesy of Peter Scheiber

Scheiber, a college music major at Oberlin, credits the liberal arts for the breakthrough that changed the way we hear music, movies, and television. “The fact that I took a lot of French and music courses allowed me to do this,” he says. “I don’t think like an engineer. That’s why I was able to overcome the problems of making surround sound practical for real-world applications.”

After college, where he played bassoon in the Oberlin Orchestra, Scheiber performed professionally with the Ottawa Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony orchestras. After leaving a technical job at Texas Instruments, he tinkered with the surround sound concept for years, eventually obtaining a series of patents. Dolby Laboratories commercialized the process, which made its first big splash in 1976 with the release of Star Wars.

Scheiber, however, didn’t get rich. It took a federal patent infringement suit to get Dolby to pay royalties. That was followed by another court dispute over Scheiber’s licensing agreement with Dolby, which he lost on a complex provision of federal law. Fame soon followed, however, when Scheiber received an Emmy Award in 2003 for development of surround sound for television. He now lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he has developed a new set of surround sound patents and is seeking a partner to develop and market them.

Beating Hearts
As co-inventor of the first heart-lung machine, Frederick Cross ’42 helped jump-start the use of open-heart surgery. The Kay-Cross Rotating Disk Oxygenator, which was named for Cross and his co-inventor, Earle B. Kay, became one of the most widely used heart-lung machines in the world in the 1950s. The invention allowed surgeons to probe a living heart for extended periods of time by transferring the jobs of respiration and circulation from the patient’s lungs and heart to a machine.

Photo courtesy of Frederick Cross

Coincidentally, more than 50 years later, Boston heart surgeon Billy Cohn ’82 would add another invention to the open-heart surgical field. The Cohn Cardiac Stabilizer, fashioned by Cohn in his basement from a set of soupspoons, allows surgeons to perform bypass surgery on a beating heart. “I realized that’s how you invent—you just do it,” he says.

Considered a leader among the new generation of heart surgeons who believe surgery can be done better, cheaper, and with less recovery time, Cohn holds more than 20 patents and recently invented a device to treat congestive heart failure. “Open-heart surgery, in 15 years, will hopefully look a lot different than it does now,” says Cohn, now working in Houston as director of minimally invasive surgical technology at the Texas Heart Institute. One day, he says, he’d like to do open-heart surgery without cutting into a patient’s chest.


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