Abe Lincoln’s Other Hobby

Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to have a patent issued to him, as a young backwoods lawyer who specialized in railroad law, but also took many cases for the riverboat trade. He received his US Patent for an apparatus that buoyed up riverboats which had become caught on shallow bottoms, lifting them over obstructions. One of his lesser-known accomplishments as President was to strengthen the U.S. Patent system. Of patents, Lincoln said: The patent system secures to the inventor for a limited time the exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby adds the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.

When I created the CPR Learning System with a computerized manikin for evaluation of hands-on procedures, the American Heart Association wanted to patent it. As I was working there, the bad news was that the Heart Association would own the patent. However, the good news was that they would pay for legally creating the patent, and along the way, teach me how to approach patents on other ideas that they would not own. I studied how the lawyers wrote these from information I gave them, and gasped at the cost the Heart Association was paying. But it was worth it to them, as they were able to eventually pass many of the costs off to interested businesses.

Having a patented product certainly helped get business interest in proliferating CPR way for the Heart Association. And evangelizing, as I had to, to get outside funding to continue with my CPR simulator, I did run into several people with money who wondered if I had any other unusual ideas they could invest in. It dawned on me that I would be wise to create such ideas for them. The first of these ideas, in 1982, was a tablet-sized console that could reconfigure itself into any kind of specific computer needed, through data. It had a keyboard, but also joysticks and ten reconfigurable LED windows. Its inputs could be optical videodiscs, data transmission either wired or wireless, and a sort of cartridge to carry specific program data for use on the system. That patent helped get me the funding for my small company, Ixion, which was to build and market these…what would you call them in 1982…tablets?

My heart and my few spare hours and my small bit of funding went into this innovative data-tablet that was WAY ahead of its time: before CDs, before the Internet data, before people really understood what a Personal Computer was. Here was the complete user of data, in any form. Here was the device that changed itself according to the data it received. Its levers and buttons changed their function depending upon what you wanted to do. Its videodisc input could give you 54,000 frames – still or moving with audio. I had schemes for it as a repository for small aircraft information (radio codes and landing fields across the world), or a reading teacher, or a game console far offering entertainment far beyond those Pong and Space Invader games then on the market.

In the previous case of my CPR learning system, I had built the simulator first and then worked with lawyers on the writing of the patent. That is certainly the easy way. On the other hand, my reconfigurable tablet console was pure design conception, and then I had to build it. I don’t know if that is the way most patents come about, but the rub is that you have to think of everything from the first – and of course you don’t know the half of it until you try to put it together and make it work, and that is often too late to get some of the best ideas into the initial patent. Perhaps my greatest good fortune was in finding Jim Dixon through a mutual friend at Texas Instruments.

It was 1982, and Jim Dixon had just retired from Texas Instruments after a long career on the legal staff there. In 1959, Jim had the distinction of being the attorney of record for Jack Kilby, an engineer at Texas Instruments who had created the first integrated circuit. The first integrated circuit was no slouch technology. When transistors were proving their worth, new uses needed more and more transistors in smaller and smaller spaces. Kilby created a printed circuit board with hundreds of tiny transistors on it, integrated in a small “chip” that would later became common in everyday electronics as well as space exploration, and of course eventually in computers.

The whole business of the top semiconductor companies was to design new conglomerations of transistors, and race other companies to 1. Get them to market and 2. Reduce costs with volume production. That made for exciting times at Texas Instruments in the 60’s and 70s. and Jim Dixon had been in the middle of it all. Just a few years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Jack Kilby for that first integrated circuit. I sent Jim a congratulations note when I saw it on the news. He had mentored Kilby through the whole process of patenting a revolutionary idea.

So on an afternoon in 1982, I met with Jim at a law firm he was consulting with part time. They were lucky to get him. Apparently only about 200 patent lawyers in the world at the time were deemed experienced enough to argue a case before the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C. So that made my introduction and meeting with him very lucky indeed. In addition, Jim was that soft spoken kind of wry intellect you sometimes find in the Southwest. He was thoughtful, and kind, a person who has little left to prove in life, and only wants to do projects of worth that he will enjoy working on. Fortunately our mutual friend Jack Miller had mentioned that I had an interesting idea and no money. With that understanding, Jim agreed to look over the disclosure document I had filed with the U.S. Patent Office, to show what the invention was about and possibly form the basis of a search.

Jim said he thought he could work with me if I would do the patent searching and write the initial patent. This, he said, would save immense amount of money that is usually spent for what he called “lawyer education” — bringing the lawyers up to speed (at hundreds of dollars an hour) so that they could write the patent. Sometimes that cost tens of thousands of dollars, even back in 1983. Writing claims for the patent’s uniqueness that could be argued in court could eventually cost even more. Jim said – a little reluctantly – that he would have to charge me something, a couple of thousand dollars, just to assuage the bookkeepers in his current office. That was one more place I was lucky. I had bought some lots down the street in an awkward area that became fashionable, and made about $4000 selling those.

Of course another place I was awfully lucky was in being married to Brenda. This extra money was a little bit of security in a world that didn’t pay me much, and we had lived pretty much paycheck to paycheck, in an unimpressive house across from a horse barn in the suburban outskirts of Dallas. When I sheepishly told her I would like to use half of the money to pay for a patent that may or may not go anywhere, she did not object for a moment. Brenda had not grown up wealthy, and throwing in her lot with me had not improved those prospects. Nevertheless she did not hesitate in saying “Well, that’s why you make money, to do things you believe in.”

A third and probably the most important patent I wrote (again with Jim Dixon’s kind mentorship and claims writing) was on an Internal Landscapes simulator. I had had some experience simulating endoscopies so I had some fair bit of knowledge about what I was proposing. It was a simulator to present non-invasive and semi-invasive procedures to doctors in learning situations. Of course no one had ever seen anything like it: it allowed a novice practitioner to go through a fairly complete endoscopic procedure watching on video, as is the custom now when they have remote instruments in the body. That Internal Landscapes patent secured for us a couple of large projects, and allowed my company, Ixion, to grow to about 20 people eventually.

In those early stages of the Endoscopy contract with Merch, the doctor I was working with needed footage of the upper GI tract, to integrate into the simulator. Having no other willing bodies, I volunteered my own. I was fascinated to be both the director and the set designer on this production, all using my GI tract. We took a lot of stuff and I became quite familiar with my internal self. I also came to see a lot of beauty in the tracts and muscles and colorations in what some people thought of as yucky insides. This doctor showed my Upper G.I. Endoscopy Simulator at a hospital in Germany, and apparently a few of the Nobel committee members came sniffing down to Hamburg to witness it. (No bites, however. Guess that and Jim Dixon are about as close as I’ll ever come.)

Of course, once we had something to show for our Merck contract, they wanted to show it off at trade shows to attract physicians to their booths. In Australia, our ERCP simulator was so popular that they had physicians lining up to do 15 minute sessions on it. It attracted so many physicians to the Merck booth that all the other drug companies were lonely on the other ends of the floor. One company took the emergency measure of renting a Boeing 747 to take doctors to Perth, at the other side of Australia, for a drummed up series of talks, mostly to get them away from the Merck (our) simulator. ERCP, by the way, means Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography and of course I learned to spit out that mouthful in talks I gave with such aplomb that all the doctors in attendance called me “doctor”, as if I were one of them.

Johnson & Johnson saw our demo at one show and asked us to consider a laparoscopic simulator, as they were embarking on another fortune in selling instruments for the video gall bladder surgeries. They were doing them on pigs and some PETA (animal cruelty) sympathizers actually bombed the training labs of US Surgical Corporation, which was also selling laparoscopic instruments, those you insert in the abdomen and suck out the diseased gall bladder, which people learned they could do without. They felt that if they could show they were training in this high demand areas with simulation, and not a never ending parade of pigs from Ohio farms, they could hold their heads up in this PR battle. However, we had competition for the project, and a tough one at that. These people had done flight simulators for major aircraft manufacturers and had all the background and technical expertise you could want.

However, I had the Internal Landscapes patent that fit this perfectly, and at the last minute, my son Galen pitched it, too. In my somewhat daring fashion, I told the J&J people we would present a hands-on demo with a pig, to prove we could arrange the internal footage. That meant taking some pig footage in circular panning patterns and programming that to react to some instrument. The only thing I could think of was one of those circle-drawing tools, and instead of a pencil, I had it holding a scope that would seem to go inside the pig.

That mock “scope” would activate the video and the screen would appear as if we were exploring around various layers of pig abdomen with an internal camera. But the problem remained how to attach the circle-drawing compass to the pig. My son had done some soldering and said he would solder the compass to a wire screen, and sew that to the outside of the pig. Luckily, at the demo, a doctor stepped up with a curved needle and waxed thread (after all Johnson & Johnson provided those to Civil War doctors – really…an old company), to sew the prototype device to the outside of the pig. It worked. It actually looked as if we could create a simulator to teach surgeons instead of killing pigs to train them.

And so we won the Johnson & Johnson contract, and a bunch of money with it.

To be honest, a number of people who worked with us did not like the fact that I owned the patents for my business, and several employees actually resented my ownership. I could never understand that. First, my patents had probably gotten us contracts which provided a livelihood for them — something that does not just happen by magic. I considered inventing to be something I could do that was worth something. People could be professors and football players, and others were musicians and others computer programmers. I could do none of these things, all of which had an more sure and immediate value in most phases of life than the speculative writing of a patent could ever attain.

Finally, not all patents are granted, by any means. Most fall to the wayside in initial searches, where someone else had the notion a good while back. Many more fall through the grate because lawyers want money to be educated in their subject, and then to write the patents. And finally, there is usually at least a two-year process, during which patent examiners decide whether your idea is truly unique, or would have been obvious to anyone else skilled in that field. Unique and Obvious are pivotal words in that process.

I will never understand why a good number of people acted toward me as if I were cheating, or blowing up the importance of my ideas, or was in some way undeserving — to the point I was nearly scorned at times. By the way, I am told the Chinese do not believe in patents at all, as a cultural thing. They think any person’s ideas should be the property of all. But we are not far behind the Chinese. Many of our universities also take that approach (- unless of course they own the patents) that all such knowledge should be free, and shared gladly with them. Many university people — who might otherwise have been my friends in the local universities — felt I should just give this property I had created to the world as a whole. My feeling was not that my patents should give me any chokehold on business, but that if I had a patent, no one was going to prevent me from working in that area. Jim Dixon, ever wise and ever gentle, said the real reason for patents was to stimulate others to make better devices (– or now, better programs). In that way, society always had the incentive to create and develop better ways of doing things.

Perhaps this inventing is a sort of mental disease. Even now, when I am sort of retired, I am still doing patents every few years for things I feel to be of worth, but which others may look sideways and snicker at. Maybe I will end up in one of the silly patent books yet.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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