When Richard Gitlin was growing up in New York, he was the kind of guy who wanted to crash model trains and write computer programs that would force division by zero.
Now a professor in electrical engineering teaching a graduate level class at USF, Gitlin holds 60 U.S. patents and was recently elected to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.
Over his long career in the field of engineering, Gitlin is most proud of having invented the Digital Subscriber Line and the MIMO smart antenna technology, both of which are related to improving the transfer of data on phone networks.
At USF, he is proudest of the production of a vectorcardiogram, a wearable electrocardiogram that has been able to predict cardiac episodes down to a few minutes, and of the Miniature and Anchored Remote Videoscope for Expedited Laparoscopy that allows for minimally invasive surgery using a single device.
He recalls his upbringing as the son of immigrants as humble.
“I was one of those kids who was always interested in how things worked,” he said. “I just always had a lot of curiosity.”
In high school, Gitlin was on the math team and the basketball team. His uncle thought Gitlin should be a surgeon like him, so he took him along to witness a surgery first-hand. After the first incision was made and the blood started flowing, Gitlin doesn’t remember much other than being asked if he was all right and telling his uncle he thought he might be a better fit for engineering.
He graduated at 15 years old in 1959 before going to The City College of New York for a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and then Columbia University for his master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering. When he was earning his doctorate at 25 years old, he noticed something among his peers that would stick with him.
“I saw the people who were most highly regarded were the inventors and the innovators,” Gitlin said.
He worked as a visiting professor in electrical engineering at Columbia University before coming to USF eight years ago. As far as teaching goes, Gitlin said he feels he has a lot to offer people.
He likes to get his students to think about other ways to approach problems, because he said he feels this is a valuable skill for them to have out in the real world.
Identifying a problem, Gitlin said, is what invention is all about. He said he thinks inventors are optimists.
“There’s a certain element of mysticism about invention,” he said.
However, he said, it’s not just about the problem, but finding a solution and laying out how to construct that solution. Engineering, he said, is taking a problem and transforming it into a previously solved problem.
“If it was conventional thinking, people would’ve already realized this is how you do it,” Gitlin said.
Innovation, he said, is different in that it has an application to translate an invention into something people use and change the way people live, work and play.
When he was younger, the idea of solving problems in different ways was made apparent to him through his readings of Scientific American, where a writer had a math column that Gitlin would have to wait a month to see the solution to. The author would include multiple solutions.
“I consider myself to be a very lucky person, just being in the right place at the right time and having very good mentors,” Gitlin said.