Lanny Smoot, Disney inventor behind live-action lightsaber, to be inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame
Jan 25, 2024, 10:59 AM
(CNN) — Lanny Smoot has been an inventor for as long as he can remember. He told CNN one of his fondest childhood memories was the day his dad brought home a light, batteries, a bell and wire.
“I probably was five or six years old, and he got the light to light up, the bell to ring – and the light from that memory has lit my entire life,” Smoot said.
Smoot said the experiment sparked an immediate fascination with anything involving electricity and electronics. He would often spend time dismantling things, using the parts to make the unique creations he dreamed up.
Now, more than 60 years later, Smoot says he hasn’t lost his passion for inventing. The Disney research fellow and imagineer has amassed 106 patents and counting, and his prolificacy and impact in the theatrical technologies and special effects field have earned him an induction into the 2024 National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“Being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame is a dream come true,” he said of the achievement. “For an inventor, this is the best thing you can do.”
For Smoot, the honor became even more profound when he realized the only other Disney employee to earn the same recognition was Walt Disney himself.
“I got a lump in my throat,” he said. “I became a little emotional. I thought, ‘The weight of that is real, right?’”
“I love to create. I love to come up with inventions … just wanting to make good things that will amaze and enchant people.”
Leading with curiosity
Rini Paiva, executive vice president for selection and recognition with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, told CNN Smoot deserves the recognition.
“Lanny Smoot is a tremendous inventor. He pursues his life with a great deal of curiosity, and I think that that curiosity, and drive and persistence is one of the things that makes him so successful,” she said.
Smoot’s inventions include the extendable lightsaber used in Disney Live Entertainment, the new HoloTile floor, which Disney calls “the world’s first multi-person, omni-directional, modular, expandable, treadmill floor,” and the interactive koi ponds at Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel.
Smoot grew up in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, which he described as “a tough neighborhood. Working class and below.”
“I was relatively poor,” he said. “But I had parents that were always ultra-supportive, and I think that’s the common denominator in success in life.”
Smoot said a combination of their support, his creativity and his drive to see his ideas come to light propelled him to Columbia University on a full scholarship and then to the so-called “idea factory,” Bell Labs, where he eventually became executive director.
Smoot remembers his mom taking a tour of his New Jersey workplace.
“At the end of walking through lab after lab and seeing all the technology, I said, ‘Mom, now do you see what I do?’ She says, ‘I understand perfectly. When you were small, you had small toys and things to play with. Now you have much bigger toys.’”
‘One of the most prolific Black inventors’
In 1998, Smoot presented one of his inventions – an electronic panning camera that would allow TV viewers to pan left or right – at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas. After the presentation, a representative from The Walt Disney Company approached Smoot with Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park on his mind.
“He wanted to use the camera to allow guests to be up close with the lions and that sort of thing and not get eaten,” Smoot explained. “Disney leased that camera, which was an unusual thing. And over time, I learned that they liked the inventor even more than the invention.”
Disney hired Smoot 25 years ago, and today The Walt Disney Company counts 74 patents created by Smoot during his time there.
Disney’s website describes the more than 100 patents in Smoot’s name as “an incredibly rare feat that makes Smoot one of the most prolific Black inventors in American history.”
Patents grant an inventor a legal right to their invention for a period of time and exclude others from making, using or selling the invention without permission.
Smoot said he’s now working on a handful of new inventions, which could lead to even more patents. He will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Washington, DC, on May 9. Eight other living inductees also will be honored for their inventions in fields including medicine, aerospace and genetics.
For now, Smoot refuses to entertain discussions about retiring – he pretended his Zoom audio broke up when CNN raised the subject.
When pressed, Smoot said, “As long as I’m enjoying myself, as long as I feel like I’m on the top of my game and able to contribute, I may work for quite some time.”
“I love the people that work (at Disney) with me, and I enjoy coming to work. And that’s something that I know so many people don’t have. I’m blessed with that.”
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