In the Spartan foyer of Eugene M. Lang's midtown Manhattan office hang half a dozen framed 19th century patents for what seem to be rather mundane inventions, e.g., Edward West's "machine for cutting and heading nails,' 1802, and Anthony Dolittle's process for improving "the art of distilling the meal of maise, or Indian corn,' 1829.
No big names or blockbuster ideas. But to Lang, president of REFAC Technology Development Corporation, no invention is ordinary. Through his eyes, these are icons of American ingenuity --the stuff that creates new industries, jobs and economic opportunity.
Invention is Lang's mission in life and the source of his considerable wealth. "I've always felt that innovation was an expression of one's own worth and purpose of being on earth,' says Lang, who has helped establish over 100 companies in 45 nations.
He is perhaps better known, however, for his offer to put a class of 61 East Harlem sixth graders through college if they graduated from high school. Members of that class are now high school seniors, and only one of the original group has dropped out. The typical ghetto school dropout rate is 75 percent.
Now, nine other well-heeled sponsors have made similar pledges to classes of disadvantaged sixth graders, and the number of classes and sponsors soon may exceed 25 nationwide. Lang, 67, never expected his impromptu gesture would produce the acclaim it has. That he made the offer isn't surprising at all. He has spent a lifetime building things of value. To him, nurturing a young mind comes as naturally as promoting a new technology--something he does better than almost anyone.
Lang has never been short of profitable ideas. He launched his first business at age 8--selling checkers to kids in his neighborhood, the same East Harlem neighborhood where half a century later he would promise to put disadvantaged youths through college.
A precocious teenager, Lang enrolled at Swarthmore College at 14, completed his B.A. four years later, then signed up for a master's degree in business at Columbia University night school, which he got at age 20. To support himself, Lang designed and sold, at two for a penny, millions of two-by-three-inch cards carrying information that helped Wall Street brokers calculate a new tax--capital gains. And he started a successful monthly stock digest to boost investor interest in the Depression-era securities market.
When the war broke out, he tried to enlist, but the Army rejected him because he had flat feet. Determined to aid the war effort, Lang became an apprentice machinist in a small aircraft parts factory. Within two years, he was one of the plant owners. On the side, he enlisted service station operators, idled by gas rationing, to manufacture cutting tools and measuring gauges using equipment in their station garages.
Shortly after the war, Lang teamed up with a New Jersey company to cut production costs of a hot new consumer item: the ballpoint pen.
Every venture was successful. But Lang never held on to any of the businesses he started. "When I thought I had proven my idea, then I'd go on to the next idea,' he recalls.
Says Lang: "I wasn't going to spend my life within a narrow line of activity, and I really never wanted to become very big.'
He did, despite himself. But on his own terms. Lang became the international Johnny Appleseed of innovation. He made millions developing equity in small manufacturing businesses whose products he licensed for production abroad. This development business evolved as the solution to a problem.
In the late 1940s, Lang invented the Heli-Coil, a small fastening device that provides stronger screw thread connections in light metals used in airplanes and autos. He set up shop in his garage, and orders quickly mounted. In 1950, he built a factory in Connecticut. Manufacturers from around the world began to call for shipments. But Lang didn't know how to export his idea; he couldn't meet the demand.
But he knew that if he didn't supply the product abroad, someone else would, and he would lose control of his invention. Lang shopped for a company that could help him take Heli-Coil overseas but same up empty-handed. Out of desperation, he decided to do it himself.
Lang sold his interest in the Heli-Coil Corporation, but kept the foreign rights as the basis for starting Resources Facilities Corporation--shortened to REFAC. "I created REFAC specifically to help small businesses bridge the gaps of distance, language, engineering standards, usages, currency restrictions, legal systems and intellectual property rights--a whole maze of complications arising from doing business overseas,' he recalls.
Great idea, but where do you start? Lang deposited $3,000 in the bank, rented a small office on 42nd Street, hired a secretary and bought an around-the-world plane ticket. He set out with Heli-Coil and two other inventions in his "bag of tricks.' When he returned three months later, "my business was established.'