I’ll give you a Thomas Edison for a Rory Cooper

Everyone at Pitt knows that Rory A. Cooper, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and a U.S. Army veteran, is a hero. But now he’ll have his very own trading card to prove it.

Cooper was honored in Washington, D.C., on May 18 at the Smithsonian Institute Museum of American History with his U.S. Patent and Trademark Office inventor trading card and portrait.

The trading card will have information on Cooper’s work, which has led to improvements in mobility for persons with disabilities. His portrait features his likeness using one of the inventions credited to him, the Ergonomic Dual Surface Wheelchair Pushrim, a wheelchair accessory designed to relieve stress on the wheelchair pusher's upper body.

He has more than two dozen patents in his name that are awarded or pending, and he also serves as director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America Research Foundation.

Cooper — believed to be the first Pitt professor to receive this honor — is the 28th inventor to join this gallery, established in 2012, which includes the likes of Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln and Hedy Lamarr.

“This gallery includes some of the greatest inventors in human history, and without a doubt this is an incredible honor. However, it is also great to see the amazing work being done at HERL be recognized as well,” Cooper, who is also associate dean for inclusion and the FISA/Paralyzed Veterans of America distinguished professor at Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said in a news release.

“The researchers in the laboratories pour their time and effort into technologies that aim to improve people’s lives who need it most. It truly is amazing to see just how far mobility technology has come, and I’m excited to see what comes next.”

The event was part of the annual Military Inventors Day. 

Other Pittsburgh inventors

Of the 28 people singled out by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with their own trading card, four have connections to Pittsburgh. In addition to Rory Cooper, the others are:

Stephanie Kwolek, organic chemist and inventor of Kevlar
Born in New Kensington in 1923. Died 2014.
Earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University in 1946

Kwolek invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide, a polymer material that is 5 times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis. The materials, marketed under the Kevlar brand, have many applications ranging from bicycle tires and racing sails to vests used by police and military personnel.

Helen Murray Free, chemist and diagnostic testing inventor
Born in Pittsburgh in 1923

Helen Murray Free and husband Alfred Free developed the first dip-and-read test strips for use in diagnostic testing. Their work revolutionized the field of urinalysis and led to many self-testing systems for people with diabetes. Free holds numerous patents and is a champion of science education and outreach. The American Chemical Society created the Helen M. Free Public Outreach Award to honor her.

Luis von Ahn, computer scientist and founder of reCAPTCHA and Duolingo
Born in 1978 in Guatemala
Currently resides in Pittsburgh where he is a consulting professor in computer science at CMU

Luis von Ahn is the inventor of an automated system that helps computers tell the difference between human users and machines, the basis for his company reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009. In addition to keeping passwords and bank accounts safe, his work uses human computation to help decode previously untranslated words. He also is the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, a popular language-learning platform. He owns multiple U.S. patents and has licensed some of them to major internet companies.

— Susan Jones