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

The Greatest American Adventure

I guess the rest of the world has their business-creation methods, and who’s to say what’s best?  I do know that in America if you have an idea that is anywhere near solid — meaning other people see a way that they can make good money from it — then you can probably enter into the Greatest American Adventure…the small start-up business. There are many reasons people find to strike out on their own…more reward from your efforts, more control of your destiny, ability to shape your work environment. My reason was to be able to make more and different realistic simulators, such as my CPR simulator for the American Heart Association. I did not see anyone else doing this, and I knew in my heart that it was needed, and I knew I could do it well. Ah, youth.

For about a year, I talked to various people about providing money for me and others who would be working with me. It was no coincidence that I was giving talks around the country to medical, training, and computer conferences, all of whose participants were highly interested in CPR Learning System I was making, all for their different reasons. The Medical people saw it as a way to transfer physical skills across the medical world, and this actually became the most rewarding avenue. The Training people saw my simulators as a way to change behaviors in a predictable way, in processes that could be easily evaluated. The Computer people saw my interfaces with computers as leading-edge use of their nascent (1983) “distributed computing” industry, with software and hardware which were easily understandable by non-technical people – a real problem for them then, and even now.

So this was an ideal situation for me to explore starting a new business for two reasons:

  1. As I mentioned, I was quite visible with a lot of speeches and articles. The New York Times and Training Magazine and Byte Magazine did print stories because it was an interesting idea in print. CBS, among others, did news stories on the CPR simulator because it was a visual one on television. One television “clip” was when I did Congressional Testimony in Washington, D.C. with the story on Diane Sawyer’s evening news. American Airlines also picked this up for their in-air magazine. I remember getting late-night calls from friends who flew from New York to Los Angeles and ( probably with a few drinks to make them jolly) were delirious at seeing one of their own so exalted.
  2. The American Heart Association wanted to get a return on their investment by having some company license and distribute the CPR learning system. My many talks were critical to that goal of theirs, and so when the trips were paid for by the conference sponsors, I was allowed quite enough travel to also meet people who might be interested in funding my business. I had been National Training Manager and the AHA gave me the title of Director of Advanced Technology Development. (Titles by the way, are sometimes just cheap rewards.)

If it sounds like a sweetheart situation instead of a sweat hard beginning, I have to admit I was naïve and somewhat stupid in feeling the direction should be so obvious. In the first place, though people liked the idea in almost every encounter, it was an abstract (, shall we say intellectual,) interest. I should have learned with the Texas Instruments programmable calculators – which took years to catch on – that any idea that does not create a high-perceived need in people is not a potent idea for a business. In the case of the TI’s programmable calculators, the market had to be educated to desire that capability. Many companies die trying to educate a market (, and mine almost did as well).

To make my stupidity even more clear, I will give you two personal instances where there was a high-perceived need that a real entrepreneur would have grabbed up and run with. The first was in 1976 when fairly stable geopositional (look it up) communications satellites started licensing block units of “transponder time” to hundreds of small entities which would then break these into smaller time slots and rent them to news, sports and other groups for real-time communications relayed through bouncing off these transponders. There was always the risk, in outer space, of the sun burning out a satellite which flew too close or an asteroid playing the cue ball to knock the satellite into a dark hole.  Or more likely, of the satellite merely getting lost. However, to me this parcel sharing looked like real estate leasing. I mentioned to one investor that someone ought to make a large scale Transponder Investment Trust on the model of Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). He got the idea immediately and in a flash, reached for his checkbook to get some money down. That was high-perceived need in action…But I was young and naïve and dissuaded him, saying that I did not have the full business available for investment. Ah yes.

A second example was recently when my son Liam and I were looking to make a write-off business with our money consuming sailboat. Since 57% of funerals in the state of Washington involve cremation, and since we lived beside a body of water which would allow human ashes, my son made the pitch to funeral directors that we could do “burials at sea” for the funeral homes, taking the ashes out into Puget Sound with some ceremony (– imagine night time torches, etc). The directors he began talking with immediately saw this as an added-value product with high-perceived need for some of the bereaved and wanted to put us on the program for regional funeral directors. (This was not an attractive idea to another important family member, so it fizzled). I wonder how many earthshaking endeavors went dark in this way before they started.

So anyway, I did not start my first and only company with such key proposition, a product with high-perceived need that was instantly understood by someone with money. It had a cool factor that got everyone’s attention, but it did not have a reach-for-your-wallet impact that indeed makes a business.

I finally procured a small dribble of investment money from an “angel” in New York City who was dabbling in small software companies. I had a chance to start the business in Boston which would have been wise, or in Seattle, which was a universe away from a lot of East Coast business ( and money). The advantage of Boston would have been a welcoming community of software people. I had already given a number of talks at MIT and Harvard. It would also have been a much shorter distance from New York and Washington, D.C. from which new-project moneys most easily flow. Seattle, on the other hand, had a fairly sparse software pool in 1983. Microsoft was still owned and run by a 27 year old Bill Gates (whose small company had just released Word for MS-DOS for the new IBM-PC,) with a few others, at the time nothing to compare in size or income with Silicon Valley companies.

Distance for us was the killer: the Pacific Northwest was too far for potential clients to fly in a day, and was of course the same distance for me to visit most potential clients. Someone in Boston could air-shuttle down to New York or Washington, and make it back to one’s own bed that night. Had I been in Boston I would probably have had 7-10 times the potential clients at hand. I also might have gotten my first heart attack, because clients who were even slightly interested expected a 20-page proposal the next week. Some tough entrepreneurs I knew in similar businesses spent 100+ hours a week doing fruitless proposal after fruitless proposal before one hit. Some were successful. Some died young.

My mode of operation (and survival) was to go to a meeting with an interested party. Most of them had the decency not to invite me to visit from across the country unless they were more than mildly interested. Then I would follow up with a note about our visit, suggesting the best first step would be a feasibility study rather than a full-blown proposal. This would be a 20-page discussion of ways our potential product could be down, with costs and time frames for each of at least 2 directions. Often I included a video demo showing what the product would look like. I did not do a high volume business from Seattle, but I would say I got the business with a very high percentage of these feasibility studies, with some money coming in immediately.

When you start a small business, it seems to me that ( ,unless you are rich — which has its own problems,) you come from one of two directions: you either move from a position of stability and comfort to one of constant insecurity, or else you have been placed in that position, such as being let go from your day job. One apparent option is to start your own business, but that is scary to most people. The odds and the prospects for dismal failure are so strong that, after seeing only one or two cars stop at their lemonade stand as a kid, few people will start small businesses just for fun. That said, I believe everyone needs to be involved with a small startup business at least once. Things you thought you knew about teamwork and product viability and actual survival require the most shocking redefinition almost daily. The “wolf” of bankruptcy and shame and unpaid workers and dissatisfied investors and creditors taking your house is always down the street, and too often that wolf is howling at your door. The concept of “aged-payables” (prioritizing who of your vendors and suppliers gets paid) is core to bookkeeping in a small business. In a gallows-humor sort of way, that kind of cliff hanging makes the experience, and of course any temporary bullet-dodging success, at least absorbing if not actually fun. The key is whether the little company can hang on through months, and even years, of despair.

Back in the early 1980’s a group of successful entrepreneurs participated in a study where they were asked to rank-order several phrases describing key abilities a small business founder must have. Knowledge of markets, team leadership abilities, objective decision making, cash flow management… these and many others were offered to the group of seven successful entrepreneurs, some of whom you may know by name. 5 of the 7 entrepreneurs on the panel instantly selected this one ability: to work through despair. At some point we all have the opportunity to learn — or to fail — this most important lesson of any lifetime, to continue to work through despair. Though I will relate here various interesting successes in my business, I will not talk further of those frequent months of despair – God knows it is like the mariner standing out on the windless foredeck, straining his eyes out across a pitiless, calm sea for any slight bump of land on the horizon. Though I’m considered an optimist, I swear this utter despair often lasted for months without a snippet of good news, draining every personal penny I could find, exhausting every good idea, watching good people leave me from lack of faith, and yet there would remain still more weeks of sheer despair with no schedule for its ending. Unless I am not as smart as most, it seems to me that despair must also be part of our Great American Adventure…

It did help that most of my previous employers had allowed me to creatively add value, and to develop directions that were new and unusual to the basic training jobs I held. The formula is that you do the prescribed job in spades and then add immensely greater value with spinoffs and targets of opportunity. Of course, that is about what you do in your own business, without the safety net. And without having to negotiate leases. And without having to meet a payroll monthly. And without having to understand medical and 401(K) plans. And without having to hold the hands of temperamental technical types. But most differently, in your own business you get up every morning hoping you can kill enough to eat.

Company names at the time favored the Greeks. We wanted a company name that somehow suggested videodiscs. There was a god named Ixion who for his sins was strapped to a revolving wheel in Hades, so of course we called the company Ixion. (Later, searching for trademarks, I discovered the Ixion tire company in El Paso.) Under that shingle, I was able to bring Jane, plus two others to Seattle to work with me, basically trying to drum up initial business and hopefully interest little more investment. This, of course, necessitated that the partner to the Great American Adventure had to be the Great American Business Plan. My contention is that anyone who can write a novel can knock off a Great American Business Plan in a few weekends. Numerous examples – mostly failures where there is no vital info – will show you the structure and the blanks to fill in. Speculation and facts can be artfully mixed by any second rate novelist. Patents also help, but they take a better grade of novelist.

On the other hand, we did have something real to offer. Jane and I were by that time extremely knowledgeable on videodiscs, with our early start on the CPR simulator. That first year we scraped together training videodiscs with A T & T, GTE Directories, and for IBM a now long-buried set of point-of -view flight games for interactive videotape (with which we had actually done some pioneering work in 1979 with the first CPR prototype-demo). We also made our own traveling demo disc, run by a TRS-80 100, Radio Shack’s little portable computer the size of a book. On that disc we created an interactive scenarios dramatizing answers from a salesman to a difficult Client, and in the 3 wrong answers, cut to Close up of the Boss glaring into the camera saying “You did what?!!!”It was always funny and repetition made it funnier. It was always instructive because the narrator told the viewer why each answer was wrong and finally, why the 4th correct answer was the right one.

More importantly, we had interactive action demos. In “Stop the Shoplifter,” you saw a 15-second pan across several people in aisles of a clothing store handling merchandise as they looked it over. You stopped the action when you saw the shoplifter and the screen numbered the potential shoplifters for you to select one. Then the wrong answers continued their actions to show that that they were not the shoplifters. (This one went over particularly well in China, for some reason. Crime may be the universal language.) We also had a very popular demo for my Las Vegas talks at the Consumer Electronics Show and National Association of Broadcasters show. It was a simple shell game, shot in real time three times with three different outcomes. The software programming was called drop down random wherein each time the selection was made (A B or C on the screen) the program rescrambled the 3 shells with peas and 3 empty ones, deposited them in a hierarchy of variables, and dropped down the bottom variable from the box. I did that for a crowd of 2000 in Las Vegas once and had them saying “Power to the People.” Fun as these were, the most important one was a welding simulator, where you actually adjusted the flame on a welding torch to more and less intense by holding down on one of two keys. You could “feel” the variations as you held down a key, and it was not a lot different from turning a dial. This latter demo translated eventually into a welding simulator for the Academy of Aeronautics at La Guardia in New York, later quite a bit of medical instrument business.

So that first year was just staying alive with a couple of videodisc programs, and a feasibility project on an arthroscopy simulator, jointly (so to speak) with M.I.T’s Architecture Machine Group — which was later to become the Media Lab. Our second year was staying alive with couple of those feasibility studies and finally a project from Merck, who wanted to simulate Upper G.I. endoscopies to attract physicians to their booths at shows. I volunteered my body to take internal pictures which we could insert into a demo for the feasibility study. Having some background making good but cheap video was a distinct advantage. Whatever it costs you, when you are basically selling ideas, a five-minute videotape imitating a future reality can do wonders for getting support for the final, much larger projects which have a whole lot more money attached. It is equally effective in carrying your large project through those yearly budget reviews and company reorganizations (, where projects that are hard to understand – and operations with few results to show — are unceremoniously dropped from the future. Contracts be damned, these companies have more lawyers than you could ever afford.)

With that first Merck Upper G.I Endoscopy Simulator, we had attained some stability and some respectability. It appeared that we were started, and somehow I continued 14 years as President and CEO of IXION without missing a payroll. Truth be told, despite having a Great American Business Plan worthy of any fictional novel, even our mild success was a surprise. Having started a company which still had no apparent source of revenue, I had absolutely no idea which direction to go from there, but only to let the lucky winds blow and hope we had enough tattered sail left to capture them, and enough ballast to keep from capsizing.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved