Abigail Klein Leichman
March 9, 2010, Updated September 12, 2012

Meet an Israeli physicist who invents gadgets ranging from breast pumps and bread slicers to a calculator that won’t reveal the solution until you use your head.



Still a lot to do in physics – Israeli inventor Ilan Samson, who has developed a new calculator that encourages students to use their brains.

His inventions range from breast pumps and bread slicers to a new calculator that forces the user to think. Currently “inventor-in-residence” at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California-San Diego, Ilan Samson once dreamed of composing new music rather than creating new gadgets.

Reared in the rural mountains of northern Israel, Samson was surrounded by the strains of string quartets playing in the homes of German World War II refugees such as his parents. After completing Israeli military service in 1960, however, he decided to attend London’s Imperial College – the British equivalent of MIT – rather than the Royal College of Music.

“Music by then had been composed so perfectly that there was no chance of anyone outdoing Bach, Hayden or Verdi,” Samson tells ISRAEL21c. “In physics, there was still a lot to do.”

His newest project is the QAMA calculator, which reveals the answer only after the user enters a reasonable mental estimate of the result. While acknowledging that calculators are here to stay, Samson was concerned that their ubiquitous use has seriously eroded students’ basic understanding of arithmetic and math. His invention aims to boost estimation performance and understanding while making math fun.

“QAMA” stands for “quick approximate mental arithmetic,” but is also Hebrew for “how much.” It is generating promising results in test classrooms in America and England. One teacher wrote to Samson: “We were initially rather surprised that none of the students who worked with this calculator resented having to think. It was also surprising … how quickly the students got better at choosing sufficiently good estimates to get the calculator to give them an answer. If anything, not getting an estimate accepted made them more curious to find out why.”

A San Diego administrator reported that after using QAMA for only one week, students demonstrated 80 percent gains on a pre/post test of estimation skills.

A childhood split between music and mischief

The brains behind this invention contended with numerous basic challenges when Samson, now 70, was a boy. “Whenever we needed something to ride around in or play with, we had to build our own,” he tells ISRAEL21c. A childhood “equally split between mischief and chamber music” also yielded a mosquito zapper fashioned from a long pole attached to a chain of seven rubber bands.

“That invention eliminated the malaria threat from the Middle East,” Samson jokes.

His professional career began in operations research, where he applied physics in tangible areas such as traffic and transport. Returning to Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, Samson worked for the Ministry of Transport and lectured at Tel Aviv University before founding an industrial engineering consultancy in 1972. Except for a brief break on the battlefields of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Samson continued to serve clients in the aircraft, defense and electricity sectors until around 1980.

It was then that he came up with a great idea for his wife’s project for her industrial design course: A reclining chair. “There was no Internet at the time, so I wasn’t aware that these objects existed in America and Europe already,” he says.

Nevertheless, his design turned out to be unique, and a large German furniture manufacturer was interested. Six months after he presented a prototype, the chairs were in German stores. “Usually, inventions don’t get realized in less than three years,” Samson subsequently learned.

New life in London leads to string of inventions

The couple relocated to London, where their son Ophir was born. The new father soon developed a “white noise” baby-soothing product. That led to a string of successful inventions for infants, including the still-popular Tommee Tippee Closer to Nature brand breast pumps, nursers and “sippy” cups.

Samson has also invented such diverse products as a magnet for siphoning fat from stews and measuring tape that marks a temporary line as it unrolls.

During 27 years in London, where Ophir is now a PhD student at dad’s alma mater, Samson became concerned about students’ mathematical abilities.

“The reason science education is failing everywhere is not that kids don’t like to know how things work, but that they can’t do the math,” Samson asserts. “Even top students, if they have to calculate anything, will just key it in. The head is not involved.”

Four years ago, UCSD computer engineering professor Paul Yu invited Samson to lecture at the university about the ideas in his 2005 book, Demathtifying: Demystifying Mathematics.

A year and a half ago, Samson relocated to San Diego and worked with an undergraduate student to build the QAMA prototype for classroom testing. He is searching for a suitable manufacturer to mass-produce the calculators to sell for about $15 each. In the meantime, users can access an online version at $8.88 for a six-month subscription.

“People in the US and Israel are similar in that… both have dreams, and work hard enough to realize them,” Samson says. Though San Diego reminds him of his native Mount Carmel, he’d like someday to return. “If I could do what I’m doing now from Israel, I would,” he concludes.

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