Ben Stein, Meet Dad

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I was cruising the web and came upon the latest edition of Ben Stein’s Diary on The American Spectator. His essay is called “War,” and it is unusually long for Mr. Stein’s input to the Spectator. It is a bit rambling yet charming, as most of Mr. Stein’s essays are, and then, while meditating upon all the great inventions from and great work done by Americans, he says this:

“… And someone had to invent the system of private property so I could be in my own home, not in a crowded tenement, and then some many people had to build my house….Anyway, someone had to invent and mass-produce air conditioning, the greatest invention of all time…”

Ben, meet my Dad, one of the great unsung engineering heroes of the 20th century. My dad invented the portable, in-room air-conditioner. Then, he was robbed of it (U.S. Patent # 2,433,960, granted January 6, 1948).

I suspect your background is similar to mine. My grandfathers were Jewish immigrants, leaving a vile Europe full of Jew-killers for better opportunities in rough-and-tumble America where, nonetheless, guts and hard work could make anyone’s life better. My grandparents lived in the same fabled tenements in scrappy, dirty factory towns like Chicago, IL, and Lawrence, MA, and Macon, GA.

They may have seemed to us austere – even scary, with hard eyes over placid faces or eyes magnified unnaturally by their first eyeglasses – such was there glaring devotion to creating a better life for their kids and grandkids.

And their kids succeeded, my dad and my mom being among the first of first generation Americans to go to college. My dad won admission to a top engineering school and, five years later, after fulfilling all his graduation requirements while working 8 hours a day, six days a week in his father’s grocery store, received his BS in Mechanical Engineering.

My dad, like his dad, inherited the same work ethic, although fortunately for me and my brother, not his dad’s severity. My dad was gentle, kind, and loving while also demanding that I never back down from a fight after school, no matter how big the bullies (“Get the Kike!”) My nose had been broken several times by the time I was 15.

My dad was hired by a major engineering company and put to work developing the U.S.’s first jet engine during World War II. He tried to join the military three times, only to be told, “No. We need you more here as an engineer.” In his own time, at home, he conceived and developed the plans for a radically new air-conditioner, one that could be moved from room to room, that would heat or cool the air, remove pollutants, and humidify or de-humidify the air. It took him three years to develop, but he finished in 1945 and applied for a patent, which he received three years later (see above).

The rest you have probably figured-out. His employer did not react well to his personal success. They stole his patent. When he protested, they fired him, telling him that “The war’s over. We don’t need Jews anymore.” When he replied that he would sue them, they black-balled him from engineering and promised to “break” him in court. And that was that. My dad went back to work in his dad’s grocery store, and that’s how I knew him. The big company used his work to make hundreds of millions of dollars. It was years before I was old enough to hear the story of what had happened from my mom (my dad died when I was 15). Yet I never heard him complain about what had happened. He simply worked hard as a grocer until his early death at age 51.

So, Ben, when you think of the wonders of living well in the United States, give a silent salute to my Dad, who has cooled the world yet never received any recognition. You can even download his patent from the web (it expired in 1965). As a lawyer I am sure you understand that a patent is worthless without the resources with which to defend it in court. More’s the pity, even in America.

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