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Todd Among Century's Most Inspired Inventors

By Will Mikell Article published December 5, 2001

John Todd2
John Todd, research professor of natural resources, is profiled in a new MIT book on inventors. (Photo: Rose McNulty)

John Todd has always been a man ahead of his time. Now it appears that time has caught up with the man. Todd, a visionary in the field of ecological design for more than a quarter century, has been selected as one of the most important and inspiring inventors of the 20th century in a new book developed by the Lemelson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation.

Machines that live
Todd, research professor in natural resources, is in a select group of 35 inventors that includes Henry Ford, George Washington Carver and Steve Wozniak. Others, like Todd, who are profiled in Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse, may not be household names, but their inventions are part of our everyday lives. There’s Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse, Al Gross, inventor of the walkie-talkie and Percy Spencer, inventor of the microwave oven.

Todd created the "living machine" — an advanced, ecologically engineered, wastewater treatment system that mirrors the process of decomposition that occurs in the natural world. Living Machines use plants, animals and naturally occurring bacteria to degrade nutrients, separate out heavy metals and break down toxic compounds. Diverse communities of bacteria, algae, microorganisms, numerous species of plants and trees, snails, fish and other living creatures interact in the system to create an attractive environment and cleanse the water.

Todd first put his theories to the test in Massachusetts in 1984. When he applied his technique to a Cape Cod community that was dumping its sewage and other waste into a pit just 25 feet above the drinking water table, the cleaning process took 12 days, at the end of which 100 percent of nearly all major pollutants had been removed.

"What comes out is water," says Todd. "It really feels like a miracle."

While his living machines are complex, Todd’s motivation is, quite literally, down to earth. "We’re poisoning ourselves," he says. "The 21st century will be the century of ecology and the environment. We don’t have any other choice."

An accelerating effort
So living machines are just the beginning of Todd’s work. Recently, in a lecture to a natural resources class, Todd outlined a plan to transform an aging apartment building in Boston, incorporating ecological design. On the roof is a climatic envelope that captures solar heat to warm the apartments below. The process is reversed in the summer to provide cooling. Also on the roof is a massive garden, composed of lightweight soils made in part with recycled Styrofoam, which grows food for the people who live there. Plants will scrub the inside air. Living machines will treat the waste — producing food and money instead of the sludge produced by conventional waste-treatment methods. The $1 fish put into the machine in the spring becomes a $10 fish by fall.

From large to small, Todd’s living machines are growing in popularity. They can now be found across the United States and eight other countries, with more in development. One of Todd’s machines treats industrial waste at a chicken processing plant where more than a million birds are slaughtered each week — producing waste that is five times as strong as the human-generated variety. Todd's machines do a better job at treating the waste than conventional treatment plants, and they use one-fifth the energy. Constructing one costs a fraction of what conventional plants cost.

"Ultimately this is about earth healing," says Todd. "Ecological design can take us where we haven’t been before."