How Thomas Edison Inspired my Lifelong STEM Career

We knew Harry T. Roman invented lots of things in his engineering career, and that he was a huge Thomas Edison fan. We thought it would be cool to have an inventor, Edison fan and a seasoned writer on staff. That was 13 years ago. Recently, he wrote about his life story and how it ties into Edison. When we found out about this story, we knew we had to share it with our readers!

Harry holds 12 U.S. Patents; and during his career he helped re-design the electric utility system, introducing solar energy, robots, artificial intelligence, batteries and fuel cells, and micro sensors to the industry. Today, he also writes widely about STEM and serves as a docent at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ. He routinely visits local schools in the area to excite young minds about invention, creativity and of course…Edison. Here is the scoop on our very own Author and Advisor at the Edison Innovation Foundation, Harry T. Roman. Enjoy the read!

Since the 4th grade at Abington Avenue Grammar School in Newark, I have had a special relationship with my boyhood hero, Thomas Edison.

It all started in 1957 when my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, had us write away to a company to learn about what that company does, and then share that information with our classmates. She was handing out names and addresses of companies for us to write away to; and prophetically handed me the address for the Thomas Edison Company (their storage battery division, in the nearby town of Bloomfield). With that long-ago autumn classroom assignment, my life-long interest in invention had begun.

I dutifully wrote to the company and received a copy of a book entitled, “Edison -Inspiration to Youth” – the very same book sitting right here on my desk now. It is one of the most treasured articles of my boyhood.

The booklet that started Harry on his life-long Edison adventure.
A micro sensor head Harry designed jointly with NJIT physicists allowed Harry to detect the sound of an electrical arc deep inside large substation transformers, to prevent damage and fires. Three patents cover this 1mm size sensor (the white square at center of the sensor head). The vibrating diaphragm of the sensor is one-third the thickness of a human hair!

Reading this book, I became excited about a career as an inventor and an engineer. Having a master mechanic as a father and mentor, certainly made the trip to engineering school most challenging, filled with real-world problem solving. Dad made sure of that in our home workshop, with ample opportunity to build and fix things of all kinds; and often invent what we did not have available…for you see, Dad was an inventor of sorts as well.

After engineering college, I began work at the same company as my father, Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G). Since Edison was responsible for creating the electric utility industry, it seems destined that I should work in an industry my hero built. Not only that, but I worked in the R&D group of that company, again mimicking my hero, for he invented the whole idea of R&D labs. My personal experience with the fascinating world of invention started soon after I arrived at PSE&G, and continued throughout my 36-years there.

The OTIS robot (covered by two patents) was designed with two other engineers, shown  being lowered directly into a tank filled with light fuel oil. This robot is now used around the world to clean oil storage tanks; and do it with minimal environmental impact, in just a couple days, with no need for human entry into the dangerous tank environment.  OTIS robot (right) in light oil, ultrasonically inspecting tank floor.

For years before I retired in 2006, I would visit my old school, Abington Avenue, to talk to the middle school students about invention, and of course Edison. We did many classroom challenges, the most popular of which was to use a single sheet of paper to hold up many heavy history books. The teacher and I even wrote a paper about this invention challenge which has been re-published many times in a variety of educational books I have written, and never fails to get students up from their chairs and excited about trying to make something happen.

This patent excerpt addresses a new process [compressed dormancy] to grow feedstock plants that can be made to undergo five complete growth cycles in one year, and their biomass harvested for its anti-cancer drug value.

Now for my really interesting coincidence, the kind that leaves you wondering, and perhaps suspecting that maybe something is supposed to be a certain way. Twenty years after I wrote that letter back in the 4th grade, I married my wife…to learn soon that her uncle was the man who managed the Edison facility I had written to as a boy! Is this fate or what? Old Tom and I have been doing this waltz throughout my life. Sometimes I think he and Mrs. Wilson were in cahoots after all to snag me into the invention profession. One of my proudest moments was to be named an Inventor of the Year by the NJ Inventors Hall of Fame for my work in developing robots for hazardous environment applications. Another occurred when I retired from PSE&G and my Vice President said at my celebration that he was sad to see the company’s “Thomas Edison” leaving. I teared up so bad, I could not even speak.

Harry giving one of his favorite demonstrations… to make batteries out of simple materials, just like Edison did in the late 1800’s. The kids and teachers love his many battery demos!

While preparing to retire, a few months out, my wife thought it was right for me to see if they had a spare ranger uniform at Thomas Edison National Historical Park (TENHP). I had been working with the Superintendent at TENHP for years on industry committees; and ranger John Warren and I had done many talks together at schools and teacher conferences. So I applied for a job at TENHP and served as a seasonal ranger for about 7 months in 2006; and later joined the Edison Innovation Foundation, where I have served as their blog author and advisor for 13 years. In addition to this, when possible, I greatly enjoy volunteering at TENHP as well.

Ranger Harry lecturing at Glenmont (November 2006), the historic home of Tom and Mina Edison—what  a fabulous home, built in 1882, and lovingly cared for by TENHP staff.

In a very big way, being involved at TENHP and the Edison Foundation, and a lifelong passion for all things Edison, is my closing of a loop from 4th grade to the present. This journey never fails to stir my imagination. I have had the opportunity to tell many visitors about my journey when they ask why I talk about Edison. It has also opened a huge opportunity to write and publish articles, books, and give special presentations about the great man…my boyhood and life-long hero.

Harry’s really big day…..seated at the desk of Thomas Edison!


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