WASHINGTON – Norman McCombs’ life began in a modest country home without indoor plumbing, back when much of Amherst was still country.
And it culminated 75 years later in the most famous house in America, as President Obama on Friday awarded McCombs the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for genius inventors.
Obama honored McCombs for inventing oxygen concentrators that are now ubiquitous in hospitals from America to Afghanistan.
Now refined down to a weight of less than five pounds, McCombs’ inventions also give oxygen-dependent patients the freedom to drive, to fly by plane, to live life unencumbered by a huge and heavy oxygen tank that may just run out and God knows when.
Then again, Obama could have honored McCombs for a life fully lived.
McCombs’ story is an unlikely tale of a country boy who went to the University at Buffalo on the 10-year plan only to become not only a world-renowned inventor, but also a classical guitarist and restaurateur, not to mention president of the Bulldog Club of America.
Yet McCombs isn’t taking any credit for making himself a modern-day Renaissance man.
“It’s hard to take credit for something God’s given you,” McCombs said in an interview.
Divine intervention or not, Obama seemed to be hinting at McCombs’ life story at Friday’s awards ceremony.
“If there’s one idea that sets this country apart, one idea that makes us different from every other nation on earth, [it’s] that here in America, success does not depend on where you are born or what your last name is,” the president said. “Success depends on the ideas that you dream up, the possibilities you envision, and the hard work – the blood, sweat and tears – you’re willing to put in.”
For his part, though, McCombs offers a simpler explanation for how he invented such important products.
“I like solving problems,” he said.
The son of a Scottish immigrant who struggled through the Great Depression and ended up making a living taking checks from one branch of Manufacturers & Traders Bank to another, McCombs put in hard work from the very beginning.
At first, like many boys, young Norm McCombs liked to tear things apart and put them back together again. But he never quite aspired to be an engineer; looking back, he said he wasn’t even really familiar with the term back then.
All he wanted to do, really, was help his family. So while still at Amherst Central High School – where he starred at football and met Grace, the love of his life and wife-to-be – he went to work at the local Chevrolet plant, grinding crankshafts.
Turning down football scholarships to keep making money after graduation, he worked full time and pumped gas and ushered at a local theater to bring in money on the side, but it wasn’t as hard as it sounds, Grace said in the letter she wrote in recommending her husband for his national award.
“Norm has always made everything seem easy,” she wrote.
Before long, he enrolled in Erie County Technical Institute – now Erie Community College – and went to work at Fedders Corp. And there, the boy who loved tearing things apart started learning to be a man who could make new and wonderful things.
“Norm had designed a new central heat pump system and Fedders gave one to him as a field test unit,” Grace said. “He installed it in our new home and it cooled and supplemented the heat in our home for over 30 years.”
And that was just the start.
Union Carbide’s Linde Division saw a little something in this aspiring young inventor, and not only hired him, but agreed to help him get the University at Buffalo engineering degree that he’d earn at night school over the next decade.
And slowly but surely over many years – at Linde, at the company he formed called Xorbox, and at AirSep Corp. of Amherst, where he has been an employee since 1998 – the inventions kept coming.
First he designed an oxygen separator for use in waste water treatment plants. Then, striking off on his own in the early 1970s, he built an oxygen system for use in a veterinary clinic.
With a little venture capital from a unit of W.R. Grace, in the mid-1970s he then built the first system to pull oxygen out of the air and deliver it to medical patients.
And ever since building that 125-pound device, he’s been working to make his invention smaller and more convenient.
After cutting his product’s weight in half to make it easily shippable, McCombs decided to make an oxygen concentrator you could carry.
“When I was trying to decide which weight to actually target, I used Grace’s purse, which was almost nine pounds,” he explained.
Still not satisfied, by 2008 McCombs winnowed his product down even further. AirSep’s FreeStyle weighs in at less than five pounds, and can be plugged into any wall socket or even a car’s power source, literally changing the life of many people who need extra oxygen to stay healthy.
“You could go shopping, enjoy a game of golf, have coffee at Starbucks and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at the kids’ house – all because of Mr. Norman McCombs,” Anthony J. Staub, president of Staub Machine Co. in Hamburg, wrote in endorsing McCombs’ nomination for the award.
What’s more, McCombs’ inventions are used in military hospitals all over the world.
“These units have gone a long ways to saving wounded soldiers in the front lines,” said Army Sgt. Chris Russell, a medical maintenance specialist, in an endorsement of McCombs’ inventions.
You would think that helping the sick and wounded to breathe would be quite enough, but that’s never been McCombs’ way.
“If I can do something,” he said, “I want to do it.”
And so he got into dog training in the 1970s and ended up as president of the Bulldog Club of America.
Retiring temporarily and only sort of at 39, he went to cooking school in Europe and in 1990 opened Truffles, a highly regarded restaurant that operated for several years on Kenmore Avenue in Kenmore.
And if he ever has doubts of his impact on the world, recent events in Vienna, Austria, and the White House East Room should lay them to rest.
In a coffeehouse in Vienna, McCombs encountered a man using AirSep’s FreeStyle. McCombs went over to introduce himself and mentioned that he invented the machine, and the man replied by saying it had changed his life.
Having driven to Vienna from Germany, “he was raving about this thing, because previously he couldn’t go anywhere,” McCombs said.
And then on Friday, McCombs climbed to a stage at the White House, following the footsteps of previous National Medal of Technology winners such as Wilson Greatbatch, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Hearing a Marine read a citation describing McCombs’ life’s work, the president leaned over to McCombs and whispered in his ear.
“He said it sounded wonderful,” McCombs said.