In memoriam: Adolph Kiefer, Olympic gold medalist, innovator and inventor extraordinaire

In bringing sports and IP together, there are few stories more notable than that of Adolph Kiefer, who combined athletic excellence with later distinction in innovation and invention. As reported, Kiefer, who was America's oldest living Olympic gold medalist, passed away several weeks ago at the age of 98. Kiefer's tale, while from another time and place, is worthy of retelling to generations unaware of his accomplishments.

Kiefer was born in Chicago to a German immigrant family. His swimming prowess in the backstroke was recognized as a teenager. He broke his first world record at the age of 15 and he ruled the backstroke event, together with championships in the 100-yard individual medley and freestyle. How good was Kiefer? He was the first swimmer ever to cover the 100-yard backstroke in less than one minute. He won 58 national championships between the years 1935-1945 and between 1934 and 1943, he won an astonishing 200 consecutive backstroke events.

Probably the highlight of his competitive career was his success at the super-charged 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. There, at the age of 17, he won the gold medal in the 100-yard backstroke, setting a world record in the process. A journalist at the New York Times described him then as "the greatest back-stroker that has even swum." Later, a sportswriter observed that if the war had not intervened, "he'd be to the backstroke what Pablo Casals was to the cello."

But Kiefer the innovator was no less impressive than Kiefer the athlete. Joining the Navy in 1942, Kiefer noticed that the Navy was losing more troops to drowning than to enemy fire. Kiefer responded like a champion. He developed a program for swimming and lifesaving instruction that was adopted by the entire Navy. Kiefer described his program thus—
“No one could get on a ship without taking a 21-hour course in swimming,” Kiefer said. “We designed lifesaving equipment and taught them what we called the victory backstroke” [which was in the form of 'the arms extended over the head forming a V'].
In a world where we were are wont to think about the proprietary aspects of intangible assets, it does not appear that Kiefer ever claimed any rights in his program. How many lives were saved, one wonders. As for Kiefer himself, he simply described his involvement with this program as his "greatest thrill."

This is not to say that Kiefer was not also an inventor and innovator in the more conventional sense. After the war, he turned to the business of manufacturing swimming pools, pool equipment and lifesaving equipment. The business, ultimately known as Kiefer Sports Group, remained with Kiefer until he sold it in 2011. Central to Kiefer's business was his inventive activity both in utility patents and design patents. This Kat asked one of his colleagues to delve more deeply into Kiefer's patenting activity, and he produced the following list.

US Design – 723125 – Kickboard

US Design – 970865 – Trolley

US Design – 464433 - Spine board

US Design - 480298 – Pipe clamp

US Patent 6659104 – Cervical spine restraint and spine board equipped with the same

US Patent 3219007 (from 1965) – Two-in-one tow handles

US Patent 3607103 (from 1971) – Chemical dispenser for swimming pools

US Patent 3498246 (from 1970) – Turbulence reducing device for swimming pools

US Patent 6920652 – Top for starting platform for swimming pool

US Patent 3127623(from 1963) – skis and binding therefor

[Kiefer also managed to invent what is described as a "flip turn" for the backstroke, which reportedly is still being used today.]

Particularly noteworthy is that many of these patents were issued in the 1960's and 1970's, an era in which there was less enthusiasm for IP in general, and patents, in particular. Perhaps it is precisely a person of Kiefer's background who could be expected to buck the anti-IP trend of that time. When one considers all of Kiefer's swimming championships together with his patent activity, one can only ask: has there even been an athlete who has combined the two in such a successful fashion?

In memoriam: Adolph Kiefer, Olympic gold medalist, innovator and inventor extraordinaire In memoriam: Adolph Kiefer, Olympic gold medalist, innovator and inventor extraordinaire Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 Rating: 5


  1. There's a typing error in the "turbulence reducing .." patent: should be
    US3498246 (divisional of 3304560).

  2. This Kat has just returned from the INTA Annual Meeting. Thanks for the correction.


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