At age 17, Ray Kurzweil appeared on TV's I've Got A Secret with Steve Allen. His secret? The piece of music he played had been composed entirely by a computer he invented. That early acclaim only hinted at the remarkable body of invention that Kurzweil would establish over the next four decades."I'm excited by the link between dry formulas on a blackboard and people's lives," he says.

Starting in 1974, Kurzweil invented in rapid succession a device that recognized printed text; the flatbed scanner; and then a way for machines to connect text to a recorded voice. Combining all three technologies, he developed the Kurzweil Reading Machine to assist the blind. His first customer was Stevie Wonder, who called the reading machine "a breakthrough that changed my life."

Kurzweil sold that business to Xerox in 1980, and then he and Wonder collaborated on a music synthesizer (the partners and the product are shown, above, in 1986) that could replicate the rich tonality of a grand piano and other orchestral instruments. He sold that business in 1990. Now Kurzweil, 57, is working on technology to help hedge funds execute trades based on instantaneous readings of the market.

Though they may seem wildly eclectic, Kurzweil's businesses rely on one basic theme: pattern recognition. "I gather as much data as I can to develop patterns at every different level," he says. Kurzweil's ability to channel that notion into great businesses, time and time again, is itself a pretty remarkable pattern.

Adam Hanft