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Published: Sunday, 4/22/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Inventor lights up the way to 106 patents

BY ROBERT L. SMITH
(CLEVELAND) PLAIN DEALER
General Electric lighting engineer Louis Nerone has averaged about four patents a year, although last year he tallied eight. General Electric lighting engineer Louis Nerone has averaged about four patents a year, although last year he tallied eight.
THE PLAIN DEALER Enlarge

CLEVELAND -- Fountains soar and lawns stretch bright and green at Nela Park, the historic research campus in East Cleveland, where General Electric engineers design the lighting systems of tomorrow.

Walkways lead to stately Georgian-style structures but also to utilitarian buildings, like the red-brick Technology Building. On its second floor, in a cluttered nook not much bigger than an office cubicle, Louis Nerone endeavors to build a better light bulb.

At 62, he throws himself into that task with curiosity, passion, and an astonishing knack for invention.

During his quarter century at GE, Mr. Nerone has averaged about four patents a year, although last year he tallied eight. His colleagues brought in a cake and even the maintenance staff celebrated when, in December, he was awarded his 100th patent.

GE's most prolific inventor recently reacted to patent number 106 with trademark modesty.

"I see myself as part of a team," he said. "I don't invent anything here by myself."

Maybe not. But on a campus where the specter of Thomas Edison looms, people intone the name Nerone with similar awe and respect.

"Lou's one in a million," said Dennis Bradley, GE's technology manager for LED innovation and Mr. Nerone's direct supervisor.

"There's probably a handful of guys in the company with his technical depth," he said, and few in history with his record of achievement.

Most of Mr. Nerone's work is hidden from view. He tinkers with the electronic guts of lighting systems, divining innovations that make lights burn brighter, softer, longer, or more efficiently.

Patent number 100, for example, came for a "dimming ballast" for a fluorescent lamp. To demonstrate what he did, Mr. Nerone points to the fluorescent light box above his head. His engineering softens the electric light when natural light is abundant. A second quality, which he calls parallel operation, allows three fluorescent tubes to burn on when the fourth tube has burned out. Previously, one bad lamp broke the circuit and darkened the set.

"If you go into Walmart and look up and see a lamp out, and all the other lamps are lit, that's ours," he said.

In his private office, a framed copy of Thomas Edison's 1879 patent application for an incandescent light bulb adorns a wall. But most often he can be found in the electronics laboratory, at a workbench strewn with tweezers, wire cutters, and soldering guns.

From such venerable hardware comes the state of the art. Mr. Nerone picks up an experimental bulb illuminated by light-emitting diode, or LED, and predicts the finished product will burn for about 15 years.

"You can put this in your house and forget about it," he said.

Typically, an invention springs from a problem needing a solution. A product manager might stop by and report that a customer is unhappy with the way a lighting system is working, or not working. Or a colleague may point out a challenge that has arisen in a new design.

"I try to think of a way to solve the problem," he said. "Then you test it out. You find out what works best."

A patent review board, on site, decides whether to send the next Nerone idea on to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The company will own the patent. Mr. Nerone gets only accolades and a stipend, or bonus, for each invention.

It's reward enough, he said.

Sometimes, the "Aha!" moment comes on his long drive home to Brecksville. He can't wait to get to the lab the next day to test his idea.

"If it works, that's the part that's cool. That's a big moment," he said. "It's like playing golf. You get that one good shot, it brings you back to the next game."

The penchant for engineering began in boyhood. He still recalls the thrill he felt when he built his first crystal radio set for a Cub Scout project. Grounded to a drain pipe in his family's garage on West 114th Street, the simple machine pulled in three Cleveland radio stations.

His grandfather was a tinkerer and he loved to invade his workbench.

"I was always taking things apart. And getting in trouble for taking apart the wrong things," he said with a smile. "That's where it starts."

He earned bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Cleveland State University, where he teaches part time.

Mr. Nerone was 36 when he learned of an opening at "the park" and leapt at the chance to join GE as a design engineer. He became part of a continuum of innovation rare in the annals of U.S. manufacturing.

General Electric emerged in 1892 from the Edison Electric Company. At the turn of the century, GE began to invest in the National Electric Lamp Co. (NELA) in Cleveland. The growing company envisioned a new kind of research center on a former vineyard in the countryside. Nela Park, America's first smart park, opened in 1912. More than 700 people work on the picturesque, 92-acre campus, the innovation center of GE Lighting, which employs about 17,000 people worldwide. To join the park in 1986 was akin to going to work at the Googleplex.

Mr. Nerone still sees it that way. "This is where all the best electronics are done for lighting," he said.



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