Dr. Lonnie Johnson Welcomes Lanny Smoot Into National Inventors Hall of Fame

JTEC Energy founder Dr. Lonnie Johnson welcomed fellow Black inventor Lanny Smoot into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in January.

Walt Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot Inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame

Story by Lila Brown for the LA Sentinel.

Lanny Smoot in his workshop at The Walt Disney Company. (National Inventors Hall of Fame)

Walt Disney Research Fellow Lanny Smoot already holds 106 patents, so when he learned he would be inducted into the 2024 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work in theatrical technologies and special effects, he assumed to be the first at The Walt Disney Company to receive such an honor.

Then the company’s leading patent holder realized he would have to share this distinction with only one other person – the legendary Walter Elias Disney himself, who was issued 14 patents.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame 2024 Inductee Announcement was held on Jan. 17, on the Walt Disney Imagineering campus in Glendale where Lonnie Johnson – inventor of the Super Soaker and a 2022 NIHF inductee – joined the ceremony to congratulate the addition of another Black inventor making modern history.

George Washington Murray, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for South Carolina’s 1st district and served from 1893 until 1897 as the only Black representative in the 53rd and 54th Congresses, will be inducted posthumously for his agricultural machinery patented inventions designed to accelerate planting and harvesting processes. He held nine U.S. patents throughout his career after emancipation and is a distant relative of U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina.

Black inventors Lonnie Johnson and Lanny Smoot. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

Smoot, who currently resides in Thousand Oaks, has spent 42 years of his life as a theatrical technology creator, inventor, electrical engineer, scientist, and researcher — with 74 of his patents being issued during his 22 years at Disney. As an imagineer, a titled used to describe a creative professional who works for Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Smoot has developed interactive attractions, special effects, new concepts for ride vehicles, and numerous other technological advancements for future attractions.

Disney’s Imagineering Research & Development is the media and entertainment conglomerate’s creative engine that designs and builds all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships worldwide. The department also oversees the creative aspects of Disney games, merchandise product development, and publishing businesses. His patents not only allows Disney to benefit, but the entire theatrical community at large can now create new magic, illusions and entertainment modeled after his designs.

“I have 106 issued patents, but the one I chose as the patent of record is from the ‘Where’s the Fire’ attraction designed to teach families how to protect themselves against fire dangers in their homes. Thousands of people have learned how to protect themselves from the invention,” said Smoot during the inductee announcement for his U.S. patent number 7,273,280 – (“Interactive Projection System and Method”).

“I thought this patent was the most aligned with the Disney spirit which is doing work in the service of making people happy.  It warms my heart to encourage and see young people pursuing careers in the sciences and especially in inventing, but also people who have, in some cases, not had the opportunities others may have had. This is a great honor.”

Smoot received 74 patents during his 22 years at Disney. (National Inventors Hall of Fame)

In 2021, Smoot received his 100th career patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office – this feat was a first for anyone at The Walt Disney Company.  His 100th patent (number 11,080,779 – “Systems and Methods of Presenting a Multi-Media Entertainment in a Venue”) is a milestone not often achieved by many inventors yet makes him one of the most prolific Black inventors in American history, based primarily on patents issued alone.

“The Internet has changed the world,” said Smoot during a press conference following a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the Imagineering campus.

“When I was a child, I did not know other people who were interested in electronics. I thought I was the only person in the world who liked this kind of thing. I often tell children to believe that what you like to do is really important.

“Also, believe that there are a lot of other people who do it who you just haven’t met yet.  When you find them, your world will explode. You can practice what you want to be even when you’re young by using things around your house.”

Smoot was born in 1955 in New York City.  As a child, his STEM role models were Uhura from “Star Trek” and Barney from “Mission: Impossible.” His earliest childhood memory includes when his father brought home a battery, an electric bell, and a light bulb. He wired them together so that the bell would ring, and the bulb would light. From then on, Smoot learned all he could about science and engineering.

He attended Brooklyn Technical High School and was named a Bell Labs Engineering Scholar, earning a full scholarship to Columbia University and took on summer work at Bell Labs with a guarantee of full-time work with the company after graduation.

At Bellcore, Smoot patented some of the very first fiber-optic technologies to be widely used in the Bell Telephone network, as well as developing and patenting early video streaming and teleconferencing systems which is used for software company Zoom Video Communications. His Large-Screen Teleconferencing System was featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Information Age” exhibit and his Bellcore Video Window System was demonstrated to Al Gore and Tom Tauke’s “Information Age” Congressional Subcommittee.

He and his team also patented an improved, realistic, extendable and retractable lightsaber that mimics movie special effects and another that enables theme park guests to battle a training droid and deflect laser blasts just as in the “Star Wars” movies. He also holds patents on large-scale interactive games, robotic eyes, new concepts for ride vehicles, creating free floating images, 3D without glasses and many more.

Since 2008, Smoot has been recognized four times by the Themed Entertainment Association, including three Thea Awards and being named a TEA Master in 2020. Smoot was recently featured in the “Breaking Barriers” exhibit at the National Inventors Hall of Fame® Museum.

As an imagineer, Smoot has developed interactive attractions, special effects, new concepts for ride vehicles, and more. (National Inventors Hall of Fame)

“Every year, I am impressed and inspired by the accomplishments of the newest Inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame,” said Kathi Vidal, under-secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

“We are proud to honor these world-changing inventors in the class of 2024, who show us the power of turning ideas into realities and participating in our intellectual property system to make a positive impact on our society and our future.”

On May 8, new inductees will place their names on illuminated hexagons in the “Gallery of Icons at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum at the USPTO Headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. The festivities will conclude on May 9, with the 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., where a total of 15 inductees will be honored at “The Greatest Celebration of American Innovation” for their contributions to society.

“For more than 50 years, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has proudly recognized extraordinary creators and innovators,” said CEO Michael Oister.

“The stories of our class of 2024 — and their world-changing inventions as diverse as cancer treatments, imaging technology, agricultural machinery and the snowmobile — will be incorporated into our children’s invention education programs such as our summer and afterschool programs Camp Invention and Invention Project. These programs tap into innate problem-solving skills of educators and students through high-energy, interactive STEM experiences.”

“At Disney Experiences, we’re committed to world-class storytelling, creativity and innovation in everything we do, and Lanny Smoot embodies every one of those ideals,” said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Experiences.

“As Disney’s most prolific inventor, Lanny continues to amaze all of us with his artistic ingenuity, technical expertise and endless imagination.”

It is safe to say that Disney Parks would not be the same today without the amazing inventions from Lanny Smoot.