“It’s really a one-person sort of vehicle,” says Lowell Wood, right after he offers me a lift back to my hotel. His brown 1996 Toyota 4Runner, parked outside his office building in Bellevue, Washington, has 300,000-plus miles on the odometer and looks it. Garbage bags full of Lord-knows-what take up most of the back. He squeezes his paunchy, 6-foot-2-inch frame behind the wheel and, using his cane, whacks away papers, more bags, and an ’80s-vintage car phone to clear some room on the passenger side. The interior smells like pet kibble. Wood puts the keys in the ignition and then spends half a minute jiggling them vigorously until the truck finally starts. As we pull away, I wonder aloud if all the detritus crammed in his SUV could be from a hobby. “No, I don’t have time for any of that,” Wood says. He adds that he’s not terribly good with the ordinary aspects of life—paying bills, say, or car washing. He’s too consumed with inventing solutions to the world’s problems. Ideas—really big ideas—keep bombarding his mind. “It’s like the rain forest,” he says. “Every afternoon, the rains come.”
From most people, a comment like that would be preposterously self-important, if not delusional. But Wood is just telling the truth. At 74, he’s been an inventor-in-residence at Intellectual Ventures, a technology research and patent firm, for about a decade. He’s paid to think and orchestrate international teams to develop products such as anticoncussion helmets, drug-delivery systems, superefficient nuclear reactors—anything, really, that might address some pressing need. In the 1980s he led the development of the space lasers that were meant to shield the U.S. from Soviet missiles as part of the “Star Wars” program. He’s an astrophysicist, a self-trained paleontologist and computer scientist, and, as of a few months ago, the most prolific inventor in U.S. history.
Here’s the rest of the piece on Lowell Wood.