At exactly 1:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, one of the nation's most prolific inventors arrives at an International House of Pancakes via sports car. It gleams quicksilver in the afternoon sun. "They call this a Jaguar," purrs Robert Fischell, who's credited with saving tens of thousands of lives and ushering in the modern era of satellite navigation. "I think it's named after a cat."
Then Fischell, in a collared shirt unbuttoned low, puts the Jag into action, weaving it through traffic on his way toward the University of Maryland. He has a meeting there at 2 p.m., and it looks to be an important one. The tech guys are rolling out his newest invention. And this one — a contraption he says could cure chronic pain — should be a doozy.
The life of Robert Fischell has been one of doozies. A space scientist turned inventor, Fischell has authored more than 200 patents that range from the grave to the quirky. He has invented a rechargeable pacemaker, an implantable cardiac defibrillator, a device that warns of epileptic seizures, an insertable insulin pump and a gizmo that zaps migraines before they start. He has also fashioned a bevy of penile prosthetics to cure erectile dysfunction as well as something called a "bowl for keeping cereal crispy."
But this invention, he says, is his most ambitious yet. "Chronic pain costs the American people $600 billion every year," Fischell says in a lilting staccato flecked with traces of his Bronx youth. "Six. Hundred. Billion. Dollars."
Still, Fischell is not a young man. He's 86. He's had two surgeries for cataracts in the last six weeks. He has an artificial left knee.
Fischell, who grimaces when mortality arises in conversation, knows more days are behind him than ahead. So he keeps a frenetic pace. He clocks 10-hour days at his office. He drives his Jaguar fast. He drinks unsweetened tea by the quart. This could be his last great invention. He has to finish it soon.
It's now 1:55 p.m. Fischell slams the Jaguar into a parking space. He hustles into the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, arriving at a conference room. Fischell looks around. It's empty. He's early.