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Leonard Reiffel

[rI' fel] physicist, inventor of the Telestrator

Leonard Reiffel

Leonard Reiffel was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 1927. His father, Carl, was a silversmith who had developed and patented a musical instrument called the slide saxophone, a cross between a trombone and a saxophone. His mother, the former Sophie Miller, was a district superintendent in the Chicago public school system. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, he studied electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, from which he received a bachelor's in 1947, a master's in 1948, and a doctorate in 1953. During this period Reiffel also spent a year working with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago's Institute for Nuclear Studies.

Reiffel's first long-term job was with the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, where he worked for 15 years. In 1959, he helped write a report at the request of the Air Force on a proposal to detonate a nuclear warhead on or near the moon. Project A119, which had been prompted by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957, secretly examined the scientific and military benefits of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear bomb the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima and detonating it on or near the surface of the moon. Exactly what the report said has never been made public, but in a letter written by Reiffel and published in the journal Nature in May 2000, the Air Force never advanced the project beyond the "study stage."

Reiffel left Armour in 1965 to join NASA as the deputy director of its Apollo program office, where he worked until 1969. During his tenure at NASA, the Apollo 1 tragedy occurred, killing all three crew members in January 1967 at what now is Cape Canaveral. He was also part of the team which determined potential landing sites for manned missions to the Moon.

After leaving NASA in 1969, Reiffel formed Instructional Dynamics, later known as Interand Corp., which eventually produced two products -- the telestrator and a videolike teleconferencing system. The idea for the Telestrator came to Reiffel while he was the host of Backyard Safari," a children-oriented science show on Sunday mornings on Chicago's WTTW-Ch. 11. The first version of the Telestrator allowed him to draw with a stylus on a transparent plastic sheet that was placed over a TV screen. The sheet was coated so that electric currents could run over it, and an image combiner merged the signals from the camera and pens. Reiffel later improved the telestrator and persuaded WBBM-Ch. 2 weather forecaster John Coughlin to use it during his weather broadcasts. It became a staple of sports broadcasts when John Madden used one during the 1981 NFL playoffs and Super Bowl XVI.

Reiffel wrote a syndicated newspaper column, as well as several fiction and nonfiction books, including the 1979 novel The Contaminant, about a biomedical attack by rogue American officers against the Soviet Union. He also delivered radio commentaries on science that won a Peabody Award, and for a time owned the Roxy Bar & Restaurant on Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park. He worked with the governments of Soviet republics in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and in 2002 he used his technical knowledge and his interest in verifying artwork to help authenticate paintings by Edouard Manet at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. In his 70's, he worked to produce a device to concentrate radiation in a targeted treatment area, and he continued to invent and file for patents into the 2010's.

Leonard Reiffel died in Chicago on April 15, 2017. He was survived by his wife of 46 years, the former Nancy Jeffers, and two sons, Evan and David.

Apollo 1

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This page was last updated on 04/28/2017.