Patents - issued and otherwise
W. A. Barrett, San Jose, CA
I have six issued patents in my name, as the inventor.
Three were issued while I was a staff member at Bell Labs
in Murray Hill.
The oldest one,
was actually manufactured and installed
into one of the first solid state digital telephone switching
systems of AT&T, and used for (I think) about a
decade before being
replaced by a more modern variation of the thing. Its idea
was actually very simple - carry a bit on a magnetized wire,
switch it back and forth with a certain electric current's
magnetic field. But also place a stronger permanent magnet
near it so that it could be switched back. An array of these
formed a semi-permanent memory, and it was used to hold
an array of telephone numbers to be mapped into circuit
closures. The permanent magnets were embedded on a sheet
to be slid out to change their state, and that was done when
a phone number was changed.
Two patents were issued for a magnetic
The idea here was to come up with a reasonably low cost,
but very fast device to convert a variable current into
its digital equivalent. "Very fast" in 1965 meant something
that could convert 10 million levels per second into
something like an 8 bit digit code, that is, convert at a
10 Mbyte rate. Today, it's done with
tiny semiconductors on a chip running more than 200 times faster
than that. To my knowledge, this contraption was never
manufactured, but I got a prototype to work at that speed
in the lab. And I was given a special award for its
ingenuity at a solid-state circuits conference the next year.
The last three patents were issued for ideas
developed at Lasa Industries. All three were implemented
on the system under development. Unfortunately, the
company collapsed without selling a single machine. It died
for various process reasons, but not for lack of excellent
software, mechanical, optical and electronic engineering.
All three depending on a unique machine that could
move around a focussed laser beam, control its intensity,
and sense light reflected from it under computer control.
4,978,841 describes a way of
using the reflected light to move across a chip edge, then
looking at the reflected signal. The chip could be
mechanically moved and oriented, so the trick was to
work out which way to orient it in order to obtain the
sharpest transition from dark to light as the beam moved
across an edge.
5,338,924 describe two
different approaches to focusing the laser beam. This
requires moving the chip up or down by submicron steps
until the beam image is as tiny as possible. This was
vital in order to achieve a controlled temperature at
the focal point. Of these two, I personally liked the
111 patent, since it made use of a set of optical fringes
that showed up through multiple reflections in one of the
clear plates of the system. The patent contains a
theoretical treatment of the fringes, which are known to
physicists as Brewster's fringes.
A would-be patent is something that reads, smells
and tastes like a patent, but isn't. The description is
there, there are often claims, the engineering is pretty
good, but I eventually realized that it had some fatal
flaw, and just not worth paying for an expensive patent.
Even a simple patent today will cost you at least $10,000
in attorney fees. And, after paying that, you may discover
that your idea is covered by some other senior patent, or
is considered a known process. Or, it would be almost
impossible for a small inventor to put it into practice.
I've ground out several dozen of these things that
have never reached the light. Judge for yourself whether
you would be willing to invest the thousands - if not
millions - of dollar to put one of them into practice.
A Supermarket Price Indicator System.
This was an idea way ahead of its time - replace the
little paper tags showing the price of something on the
shelf of a supermarket with an active LED device that
could be automatically controlled for specials or a price
increase, etc. through the store software system.
I decided against patenting it. Look at the year - 1991.
It needed several more inventions and technological advances
to have a prayer of working, and being made cheaply enough.
It took almost 20 years to develop the cheap, tiny displays
and low-power microprocessors to make this work. In fact,
I did notice something like it installed in a store about
five years ago. But my patent would have expired in 2009.
A Scoring System for Schools
I spent a lot of time writing up
this patent, which
includes some nice diagrams.
I was concerned about the fact
that so many schools in low-income school districts could
simply not afford to equip some classrooms, or even a lab,
with computers for the students to use. Even when the
manufacturer, like Apple, offered them free, and even
installed a room full for a school, the school often
discovered that maintaining them was expensive, and there
were usually no teachers with the time and experience to
keep them working.
A secondary concern was finding ways to help a school
teacher with grading lots of papers and tests churned out
by her pupils.
Maintenance is also a problem for public universities.
asked at SJSU to maintain a lab of Unix systems,
and I managed to do
it for several years, through at least three complete
model changes (HP, then IBM's AIX, then Sun workstations).
It took a lot of work, plus a budge to replace stolen or
damaged mice, keyboards, and monitors. A small school in
a rural setting wouldn't have a chance.
So what to do? Well, this is a compromise. The students
don't use a computer directly, but the school needs to
provide a networked system for its teachers.
A special digital scanner-printer is needed, to provide
a way for a busy teacher to assign homework and have someone
else grade it and mark it up.
So why didn't this make the cut? Several reasons - the
price of small desktops kept falling, and now almost every
kid has a cellphone. It also depended on some printer
company (like HP) to make a special printer that can a header
in its paper feed, then acquire what is to be printed from
a computer server. No one makes a printer like that, but
These are just two samples of would-be patents. I
have several books full of such worked-out ideas. Back in
the late 1970s I was interested in finding ways of
automating slide projector shows, coordinating it with an
audio track. Producing a movie meant a lot of painstaking
hours on a manually operated film editor - why couldn't that
I was later frustrated by the huge parking garages
at San Jose State, and the way everyone had to drive through
carefully checking either side for an empty place, only to
find out the thing was completely full. Such a waste of
time and gas! Surely there had to be some way of telling a
driver the thing was full, or where to reserve and find a
parking spot if there was one. This is still an unsolved
problem, although more garages now at least keep track of
the number of unfilled spaces by counting the entry
and exit of each car. Many have a large sign outside
announcing that there are XX spaces for parking here. But
it's still often hard to find one of those spaces.