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The Inventor of Cigarette Filters Just Invented Three-Dimensional Chess

An interview with Ramón Galindo, who has spent the last 60 years developing a ton of inventions.

This article was originally published on VICE Spain.

Who, you ask, invented the filter on your cigarette? Not, I'll tell you, some eccentric inventor who became a millionaire off of it, got remarried to a model who could have been his daughter, and subsequently tragically died in a drug-fueled freak accident on his yacht.

The inventor of the cigarette filter is a very nice elderly man from Barcelona, who sold his idea for the cigarette filter to the tobacco industry, in exchange for life-long employment for his entire family. Ramón Galindo, who is also responsible for the shape of the handles on ping pong paddles and a ton of other things, has spent the last 60 years inventing. His latest creation is a game of chess for more than two players at a time. We talked to him about stolen patents, the perks of getting a job instead of a pile of money, and how the world has changed since he came to it.


One of the first filters for cigarettes

VICE: How did you first come up with the idea for cigarette filters?
Ramón Galindo: In 1958, my then-girlfriend (who is now my wife) worked for a tobacconist, and in those days, there weren't any manufactured cigarettes. People would buy tobacco from her and roll them by hand. If they used filters, they'd be mouthpieces. Seeing that, I thought that an incorporated mouthpiece would be so much easier. I made different filters in different sizes, and presented the idea to Tabacos de Filipinas who had an office in Barcelona. They, in turn, presented it to Philip Morris in England. It was exactly the same filter used today, but made from cotton.

How old were you at the time?
I was nineteen and studying to become an electrician and mechanic. But at the same time, I was working for my father, who made table-tennis bats. In fact, the first idea I ever put into practice was when changing the straight handle for a wedge-shaped one, in 1956. That was to allow for a more powerful strike and to make the grip better.

Did you patent it?
No, those were different times. We had Franco in Spain, and patents weren't even considered because the country was so isolated from the world.

Did you get paid for your inventions?
Well, in the case of the cigarette filters, I didn't ask for money in exchange for the invention but a guarantee that my family and I would always have work in the tobacco sector. Tabacalera Española gave us that guarantee, and we still have family members working in the tobacco industry. My wife worked in the industry for forty years. One of our sons, three of my brothers, cousins, my wife's family, and myself worked in the sector for ten years, but later changed to technology and other areas.


So revolutionizing the tobacco industry didn't make you a millionaire?
I'm the kind of inventor that has to go knocking on doors in order to convince and negotiate. It's different when you work for the research and development department of the multinational company responsible for getting the product on the market. But it was a great deal—a patent only lasts twenty-five years, while we have had secure jobs since 1959. An invention like that doesn't make anyone a millionaire. In fact, if I invent something, it can easily be copied by making only a few alterations. That always happens to inventors in this country.

Has anyone ever copied one of your inventions?
I once made an improvement to hi-fi systems: There were two types of hi-fi systems at the time, and each system had fixed wattage. I made an improvement by adding a pre-amplifier, which still exists today, so that modules of twenty watts could be added continuously. That meant we could install a sound system in a football stadium. It was copied by a large telecom company. I reported it and sued them, so for a while I had to spend eight hours in court a day, and I had to ask for permission to take time off from work every time. I had to pay a lawyer to take on their legal department. In the end, we settled, but that did take a toll on me.

When I invented a way in which the lights on cars automatically turn on when you drive into a tunnel, and presented it at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva I received an award. I also presented it to a car manufacturer, and after some time, it appeared in cars. I had taken on the telephone company, but I wasn't ready to go through that against a multinational again. I had no energy for it, so I left it.


Which one of your inventions are you most proud of?
Definitely those dedicated to special needs education or medicine. In 1965, I was part of a team that was responsible for the first kidney transplant performed in Spain. And in 1973, I worked on a project where I improved the lenses on endoscopes, so we were able to film inside the vaginal cavity of a pregnant woman with a tumor for the first time.

How do you work?
As an inventor, you'll notice something in everyday life that's not working as well of efficiently as it could, and it sticks with you. So three months later, you suddenly come up with a solution to what you saw lacking. I have a workshop where I develop my ideas. I usually work alone, or if a project is so complex I'll need to cooperate with a company, I'll work together with their employees.

Do you get nervous when you present prototypes?
Oh, I always get very nervous—but I've presented and won awards in places like Brussels, Taiwan, Kuwait, and more recently, Pittsburgh. I'm representing my country, and I'm presenting the prototypes to juries made up of people from all over the world. The last time I presented something—a game of three-dimensional chess—there were members of the WHO, WIPO, and UNESCO present.

What, exactly, is a three-dimensional chess game?
It's a type of chess that allows double games of two against two to be played. According to UNESCO, it is also an educational tool for the prevention of degenerative brain conditions. We are now looking to extend it to checkers, Chinese chess, and other board games traditionally played by two players. You could easily play it on your laptop or mobile, too. There are millions of people who play chess, so imagine the potential if only one percent of those people were to play our new style. But we haven't found an investor to help us get this on the market yet.

You've seen a lot of things change, over the years.
Technology moves so quickly. In a way, I understand why people my age don't adapt when everything changes so fast. There are people alive today who had to travel miles on horseback to get to a village, where you had to queue to be able to make a call. These days, you can be in the United States in a few hours and Facetime your loved ones to let them know you've arrived safely, the moment you get there. I don't know how long it'll take before flying cars are a thing, but getting on a car that'll just take you to your destination without you having to do anything is just around the corner.