Lanny Smoot is an Imagineer at the Walt Disney Company. In 1987, he won the BEYA (Black Engineer of the Year Award). In the fall of 2021, he was the featured guest at the BEYA Career Day for teens, where he gave attendees a talk that featured insights into his life as an Imagineer at Disney, and how he got to that pinnacle in his career.
Lanny is one of only a very small handful of engineers who can say that they have earned one hundred patents or more in their career. In August of 2021, Lanny earned his one-hundredth patent. Of these patents, seventy-four were for his research and inventions at the Walt Disney Company. Lanny has said that some of his favorite patents and innovations are special effects he designed at The Haunted Mansion ride (the portrait gallery and Madame Leota’s floating crystal ball), the glowing lightsabers used at the Disney parks’ Star Wars launch bays, the Fortress Explorations interactive adventure at Tokyo Disney Sea, and the virtual and interactive koi ponds at the Crystal Lotus Restaurant at Hong Kong Disneyland’s namesake hotel.
Lanny has been a theatrical technology creator, inventor, scientist, researcher, and electrical engineer for forty-two years. Of those, twenty-two years have been spent being employed at the Walt Disney Company. When he joined the Walt Disney Company, he was the head of the company’s research and development department in East Hampton, New York. Later, he moved with the rest of that department to the Imagineering research and development headquarters of the company in Los Angeles, California. After moving to Los Angeles, Lanny joined Disney Research, which is the most innovative branch of the research and development department. Lanny became a Disney Research Fellow in 2014.
As might be expected for someone working in a department that puts its primary focus on innovation, Lanny has created some impressively futuristic inventions that are now located in Disney parks and resorts around the globe. These inventions have included patents for new ride systems, as well as for 3D displays that do not require 3D glasses to be worn to enjoy them. Lanny is also the inventor of the extendable lightsaber and the lightsaber training experience, which have not debuted yet, but both of these things will be part of the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser multi-day experience at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida in the spring of 2022.
Lanny has an impressive and storied career, and he’s still in the best part of it. Right out of high school, he was recruited by Bell Labs, a division of Bell Communications Research (also known as Bellcore), thanks to his aptitude in electrical engineering. While working at Bell Labs, he went to Columbia University, where he received a Bachelors’s and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. While working at Bellcore (later renamed Telcordia), Lanny was lucky enough to be able to work on the very first fiber optic telecommunication and high-speed switching systems in the world, the same ones that are today used to power high-speed internet and streaming videos.
Also while working at Bellcore, Lanny personally invented the electronic panning camera that let a user see remote surroundings from any perspective. This was a precursor invention to virtual reality headsets that are just emerging as part of modern gaming and internet culture today. It was also while working at Bellcore that Lanny received his 1987 BEYA Award. In fact, he was the very first person to receive this award, which was a brand new award at the time.
After leaving Bellcore, Lanny went to work at The Walt Disney Company, where he became part of the storied Imagineering department. As an Imagineer, Lanny focuses on the entertainment side of communications, particularly at the Disney parks, hotels, and movies, where he specializes in interactive and robotic attractions, exhibits, rides, and more. At The Walt Disney Company, Lanny is lucky enough to have been a part of the development of some incredibly innovative and fun things, such as:
- Magnetic levitation
- The drive system for the BB-8 droid in the new Star Wars movie trilogy
- Artificial eyes
- Optical assemblies for superhero masks and helmets
- The Lightsaber
Lanny once did an interview with USBE & Information Technology Magazine where he advised young people to do what they love and to do what they love all the time no matter what that pursuit may be. Lanny used his own career as an example of what doing what one loves all the time can do for a person, allowing them to achieve their dreams in a marvelous way. With his own impressive list of patents and applications, and his enthusiastic passion for learning and solving problems, Lanny is an excellent example of the benefits and rewards of only doing what you love.
Lanny Smoot is the first Walt Disney Company employee to achieve the impressive and distinctive milestone of one hundred patents and applications. It is something that not many inventors achieve, which puts Lanny in a small and exclusive class of top inventors in the modern world. This accomplishment is so impressive, and so few people achieve it, that the patent attorney at the Walt Disney Company, Stuart Langley, said that Lanny’s achievement makes him “one of the most prolific black inventors in American history.”
Lanny Smoot obviously has a lot to be proud of in his career. There are few like him, and even fewer who love what they do so obviously and with such dedication and passion. He is definitely a person for would-be young engineers and inventors to look up to and admire. It is clear that he knows this, as he enjoys taking opportunities whenever he can to talk to and inspire young people who are interested in the engineering field as a career. Today, he still works at the Walt Disney Company and is still creating new inventions, some of which haven’t even been seen by the public yet. Who knows what wonderful thing this amazing, talented engineer will come up with next?