Green Phone (1972)

Once upon a time, you couldn’t own your own phone.  You had to rent your phone every month from the phone company.  That means it was illegal to take the phone apart and modify it.  Which is exactly what I did when I was 10.

Telephone Answering Machine (1975)

Today we have Facebook and Twitter and Youtube when you’re bored.  Back in 1975, all we had was a telephone. 

When I was 15 I built a telephone answering device. These were quite illegal at the time - it was to support a “dial-a-joke” (you dial a number and hear a prerecorded joke or a funny skit like the old radio days) that me and my friends ran in 1975, getting up to 200 calls a day. It controlled a tape recorder with a loop cassette; the machine was designed to detect silence in the outgoing tape and then hang up once the 6- or 12-minute skit was finished. Later it was expanded (the 2nd, smaller box) to control a 2nd tape recorder and take incoming messages as well.

Touch Tone ® Pad (1976)


Once upon a time, there were no cell phones.  If you wanted to make a phone call outside your house, you had to find a Pay Phone, which the phone company had installed pretty much everywhere.  To make a call, you’d put in a dime (later it was a quarter, unless it was a long distance call, in which case you put in several quarters and you could only talk for 3 minutes.)  Then you’d dial your number and talk.

Time Machine (1978)

In high school, a friend of mine was making a movie about time travel, and I volunteered to build him a time machine (well, it was a prop).  This "Time Machine" used LEDs to count up and down - the months would reset after 12, and the days would reset after 31. It was all hardwired with flip flops and NAND gates. (See photos below.) 

Dedicated Autodialer (1979)

When Sprint and MCI entered the alternate long distance market, accessing their services was a pain: You had to dial the local number, wait for their machine to answer, dial a 5-digit access code, then dial the area code and number you wanted.

Shoe Phone (1980)

 In my 20's I made the Guinness Book of World Records by building the world's smallest telephone -- it was so small it would fit into the sole of a Nike running shoe. This was in 1980, before cell phones, and before cordless phones were around.

Fake Car Phone (1980)

Before cell phones, there were radiotelephones. In your car.  They were big.  Only rich people could afford them.  

And when I was in college, a friend wanted to impress his new girlfriend.  So I built him this completely fake car phone with all the bells and whistles: The "Teletronics" box would have a row of LED's that scanned a row of red and then green (like a police scanner). When you picked up the phone the scanning stopped and you heard a dial tone. Five seconds later, no matter what number you dialed, you'd hear a busy signal. (Sound effects were provided by the two tape recorders under the driver's seat.)

Camera Controller for Time Exposures (1982)


Once upon a time, back in the days of film, long exposures (like of the picture below, which was taken at 2:00 AM using a 20-minute exposure) were very much a trial-and-error process.  First you had to put your camera on a tripod, and set your shutter speed to “a very long time”.  It was difficult to know how long to keep the shutter open, as the light was too low for the camera's meter to measure accurately.  So it was a trial and error process.  Standing out in the cold monitoring your camera and the elapsed time was an exercise in tedium.

Speech Synthesizer (1984)


Having machines talk has been a goal of inventors since the 17th century.  But primitive speech synthesis systems didn't start to appear until the 1970's.  In the 1980's a speech synthesis chip finally became available and I used it to make a portable "talking machine".

Remote Control for Seniors (1985)


My grandmother, in her later years, would spend her days sitting in her living room chair either reading or watching TV.

But she had a difficult time using the TV’s remote control.  The buttons were tiny, were mushy (she didn’t really know if she was pressing it with sufficient force), the writing was tiny and often of low contrast (in other words, tiny grey letters on a black background is difficult to read).  The worst part was that she didn’t understand the concept of line-of-sight when using the infrared remote control: She would hold the remote close to her face to read the legend, and then press the button.  But in that position the remote was pointing toward the ceiling, where the TV couldn’t see it.   So she’d struggle to find the right button and then not understand why pressing it didn’t work.  Frustration ensued.

Slide Projector Dissolve Unit (1985)

Back in the olden days, "multimedia" meant two slide projectors, a dissolve unit (so one image would "dissolve" into the next) and synchronized sound track.  But back in 1984 there weren't any dissolve controllers that met my needs, so I did what any self-respecting engineer would do - I designed and built my own circuitry, and programmed my HP-71 calculator (MUCH more powerful than the HP-41 previously mentioned!) in assembly language just to put on a show that moved people emotionally (like this one: ).  

Intelligent Autodialer (1986)

This was an intelligent autodialer. It was designed for those radio station contests where "the 51st caller will win a billion dollars". This would dial a number repeatedly, listen to the signal, and hang up and redial if a busy signal (or an all-lines-busy signal) was detected. It would make noise if a ring was detected.

Darkroom Controller (1986)

I had a long history of using computers to alleviate the "dog work" of photography.  Anyone who's ever spent long evenings in the darkroom not only has lungs full of Dektol fumes, but also can attest to the fact that there's a lot room for automation.  And so the same calculator that got me through my Engineering degree also saved me time in the darkroom, free to concentrate on the creative aspects. 

Electronic Tape Measure (1986)

Polaroid corporation was the first company to produce an autofocus camera.  It was able to infer the distance of the subject by bouncing sound off of the subject and timing how long it took for the sound to bounce back from the subject.  The longer it took, the further away the subject was.  See the picture of their first autofocus product below:

Automatic Window Closer (1989)

The first condo I ever owned was arranged like a chimney – every room was on its own floor.  (Well, they were staggered, so each room was ½ a flight of stairs away from the other.)

My bedroom was on the very top floor, and in the summertime it got really hot up there because, you know, heat rises.  So all the heat from the condo rose up and accumulated in my room.  But it was cool outside.  So I kept the window open to be cool enough to get to sleep, but by 4:00 AM it got so cold that it woke me up.  I’d get up, close the window, and try to go back to sleep.

Redundant Local Area Network (1989)

Once upon a time, before Wi-Fi, computers would all talk to each other via a network cable called Ethernet.  It was a big yellow cable and you had to drill into it in order to install a "vampire tap" in order to attach a computer to it.

The Data Egg (1990)

Back in my NASA days, I identified an Astronaut problem: when you’re floating in space, the minute you try to press buttons on a keyboard, unless you were tied down you would start to float away.  (You know, every action causes equal and opposite reaction.)  I thought this was a problem that needed solving.  So I devised a device that you hold in your hand – 7 buttons total – which allowed you to type every letter, number, punctuation, and every other button you could type on a standard keyboard.  (Even Ctrl-, Alt-, or Function buttons!)

Trustworthy Digital Camera (1993)

Once upon a time there was a saying: “The photograph doesn’t lie”.  While mostly true, you could still lie in the old days by attaching false captions or using a forced perspective.  Lying by manipulation came much later -- it was used heavily by the Soviets during the time of Stalin, and then by the advertising industry (which is synonymous with lying, really) with the invention of the Scitex imaging workstation in the 1970’s.  But the ability to really lie via manipulation didn’t reach the masses until Photoshop came along. 

Electronic Sheet Music (1993)

Dear all,

Last week Nana and I attended an outdoor concert.  Some of the musicians were using traditional sheet music; some were using iPads.

Instantly my brain zoomed back to the 1990's - long before iPads or Kindles existed - where I had thought of an idea of Electronic Sheet Music.  It tried to solve the problem of turning pages of sheet music while performing, a problem made especially difficult outdoors, when musicians would often use clothespins to keep the music from blowing away!  How do you turn pages during a concert with that?

Life Alert for my Grandmother (1994)

Once upon a time my 80-something-year-old grandmother was living with us while waiting for her condo (which had been badly damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake) to be rebuilt.  She was frail and fell a lot in our big house.  My mom asked me to invent something that would alert her whenever my grandmother needed help, whether at home or away.

So I went to the hardware store and bought a garage door opener and receiver.  The tiny transmitter was worn around the neck at all times like a pendant.  I connected the receiver to a small microprocessor and added a buzzer and a telephone modem. 

When the transmitter was pressed, two things would happen:

  1. The very loud buzzer would sound, which my mom would be able to hear anywhere in the house.
  2. It would dial my mom’s pager (the forerunner to cell phones) and send the number “911 911” so when my mom was out of the house she would know to come back right away.

No pictures, unfortunately.  But the system was used until my grandmother died. 

Her condo was finally restored years later, and my parents let me live there rent-free for a few years until I got a job in Orange County and had to abandon it.


Hold On™ (1994)

 My first foray into commercial products...

Once upon a time, before cell phones and before cordless phones, telephones were plugged into the wall.  In 1989, I lived in a 5-story condo where each room was on its own floor. Every time I wanted to continue a phone conversation in a different room I'd have to put the phone down, run upstairs, pick up the extension, run downstairs, hang up the original phone, run upstairs, then continue the conversation. That's a lot of running.

Digital Guitar (2010)


Once upon a time, Guitar Hero was ridiculously popular.  Kids would spend thousands of hours practicing pressing the colored buttons on the guitar neck when the video game told them to.  I looked at this and lamented, "All of those hours spent playing this game, but those skills can't translate to playing an actual guitar!  What a waste!!"

A Quick NASA video (1989)

This is me when I was young and good looking. A NASA video right around the time of Voyager's visit to Neptune. Back then, scientists got their spacecraft data from 8-track tapes and computer printouts. My group experimented with graphical displays on UNIX workstations which could visualize the data in real-time. I tried to graft that high-end capability to the measly IBM PC, which back then had the crappiest graphics ever.