An Inventive Author

May 25, 2001 by Harriet Barovic

A look at Raymond Kurzweil’s roots and beginnings in becoming an innovator.

Originally published November 30, 2000 at Published on May 31, 2001.

At M.I.T., Ray Kurzweil acquired the nickname the Phantom because he tended to skip class to work on his inventions. His disappearing act paid off. Earlier this year President Clinton presented the native New Yorker, 52, with the National Medal of Technology–a sort of cyber-Nobel Prize. Kurzweil’s eclectic career and propensity for combining science with practical–often humanitarian–applications have inspired comparisons with Thomas Edison.

The comparison isn’t that farfetched. By age 16, Kurzweil had built his first computer and sold software to IBM. His first major breakthrough, the Kurzweil Reading Machine, allowed blind people to read any document by simply feeding pages into an optical scanner that recognized characters. The computer then “spoke” the words aloud. In 1982, at the urging of Stevie Wonder, Kurzweil built what became the first synthesizer able to reproduce rich, orchestral sounds accurately; it is now widely used by pop musicians.

The son of a music professor and an artist, Kurzweil appeared as a teenager on the TV game show I’ve Got a Secret (on which comedian Henry Morgan guessed Kurzweil’s “secret” device–one that could write original music based on music it had “heard”). In college Kurzweil played piano, wrote poetry and studied creative writing with Lillian Hellman.

Though renowned philosophy professor John R. Searle has called some of Kurzweil’s visions “preposterous,” several of his predictions about cyberdevelopments of the 1990s–Does a computer beating a world chess champion sound familiar?–have proved dead on.

Original article at