As a child, Saul Griffith took apart his toys and put them back together.
“My parents didn’t mind. They gave me presents for Christmas and by lunchtime, they were in a thousand pieces,” says Griffith, who for fun once took apart his mother’s camera.
“I was always fascinated with optics and lenses,” says Griffith, who recently invented a machine the size of a desk-top printer that can produce any prescription lens in about 10 minutes for about $1. Griffith also developed a device that looks like a set of goggles to properly diagnose vision problems.
“His low-cost vision-testing and lens-manufacturing inventions could dramatically improve life for billions of people in developing countries who cannot access, nor afford, prescription glasses,” says Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which recently awarded Griffith $30,000 for winning the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Inventiveness.
Griffith got the idea for the low-cost eyeglasses after the education minister of Kenya visited MIT’s Media Lab, and he showed her one of his inventions. It was an electronic book the size of a sheet of paper that can store huge amounts of information.
But the minister said that about a quarter of the population of Kenya cannot read because they need eyeglasses and can’t afford them. Griffith decided to find a solution.
“I tried lots of ideas that didn’t work, and made lots of mistakes,” he says. “I worked for about six months before it looked like it was the right direction.”
Griffith, who this year received a doctorate from MIT’s Media Lab, earned a master’s in media arts and sciences from MIT in 2001. He earned a master’s in mechanical engineering in composite materials processing from the University of Sydney in 2000, and a bachelor’s in metallurgical engineering at the University of New South Wales in 1997.
Griffith and his colleague, Neil Houghton, have recently launched a Boston company, Low Cost Eyeglasses. And this fall, the pair plans to start a larger company, Squid-Labs, in San Francisco. Griffith and Houghton in 2001 won the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Business Plan Contest for the eyeglass idea.
The great irony, Griffith says, is “I didn’t need eyeglasses when I started the project, but now I do. It’s the price of doing close work. I’ve even made two pairs of glasses for myself.”
Griffith grew up near a nature reserve in Sydney, Australia, the son of an artist and an engineer. “The only thing you weren’t allowed to say in my house was, ‘I’m bored,’” he says. “It was the only thing for which you could be truly reprimanded. So I was always looking for things to be interested in. I didn’t have lots of toys, so I built them.”
Most recently, Griffith, along with Joost Bonsen and Nick Dragotta, developed HOWTOONS. It’s part comic strip, part science experiment, and they hope it will inspire children to learn about science and engineering. The one-page comic strip helps kids find creative uses for items you find around the house, like soda bottles, plastic buckets, duct tape, balloons, ice, or salt.
“I have a passionate interest in the environment. And I have a passionate interest in helping to educate others,” says Griffith. “I hope HOWTOONS will help kids to look at trash differently. Maybe, they’ll look at an old skateboard and a trash can and think, maybe if I bolt them together I can create a new kind of snow sled. It would be great if kids could see the world for what it can be, not for what it is.”
Griffith, who holds two patents, is involved in several invention and design projects for children and for communities in need.
“I just love invention. Every morning, I think, what am I going to create today?” says Griffith, who longterm plans to create inventions that will protect the environment and make the world a healthier place. “I’m influenced by the elegant way nature manufactures things, which is significantly better in most cases, than the way humans do,” says Griffith, who plans to develop manufacturing processes that are simpler and can make things more efficiently and with less waste.
Griffith annually vists his favorite beach in Australia. “I notice every year, that there are more plastic straws, plastic bags, and Coke bottles,” he says. “I would really love to find a way to prevent that from happening. Nature makes materials that break down. Humans make materials that don’t. It would be great to create materials that just dissolve into bio-molecules.
“I want only to produce environmentally safe products. I wouldn’t want anything else on my conscience.”