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. 

Pentium Re-compiler

 Feb. 13, 1995

Windows PCs were once run ONLY on CPUs made by Intel: computer chips with names like 8086, 80186, 80286, 80306, 80486, and Pentium.  (I guess their legal department figured out they can't trademark a number.)  Each new generation offered new capabilities that would only benefit new software that was specifically written for it.

Or can it?  What if you wrote some clever software that would examine all the executables on your hard drive and optimize them to take advantage of the Pentium's new features?  That's what this idea was.

Download the 3-page idea description at for further details.

Notice the thought at the end that it might be possible to buy things online one day once certain technical challenges regarding secure payments are overcome.  Once again, I get no credit for thinking of it first. :-(

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!!"

Other Stuff

1980's - While in college I volunteered for the Student Tutorial Elementary Program, which paired college students with low-performing youth from underprivileged neighborhood schools.  The one-on-one attention the child received twice a week for a semester made a demonstrable difference according to their teachers.

1980s – 2000’s - I found the tutoring experience so rewarding that after I graduated I spent the next 25 years as a “Big Brother” to two fatherless boys.

The second one recently had a baby and I was made Honorary Grandfather.

2003 – I spent a semester teaching English in China at the University level.

(I'm the one with the shaved head.)

I actually blogged about the experience while there. You can read the blog in its original form here (along with video and sound on some pages), or it's available in book form (well, .pdf file) here. (You won't believe the opening to Chapter 1!)

1989 - I wrote the music (and was musical director) for a children's play. Here's an excerpt - that's me playing piano in the background. Probably the most sophisticated music I've ever written.

Two NASA videos (one from 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.

And here's the longer video: "My Life As A Geek - My Decade at NASA and the Inventions that Got Me There", a lecture I gave in Copenhagen when I was there giving a seminar in 2012. Grab some popcorn and enjoy!

Six Weeks

Since I'm on a nostalgia roll here, let me tell you about the most interesting six weeks of my life.  First, some background:  

In the early 1980's, I was a photographer for a children's sign language performing ensemble called "A Show Of Hands". The group toured Switzerland in 1985 and made intense friends there with members of a Swiss children's theatre group called A.F.A.T.

Three years later, I went on a similar photographic excursion to the Soviet Union, where I documented a cultural exchange between Latvian and American high school students.  

I've compiled a short 22-page picture book talking about six weeks in 1989 which brought these and many other significant experiences together.  They are:

  • Trip to Switzerland to visit some of the kids from A.F.A.T.
  • Trip to Germany to work at the European Space Agency
  • The Peace Child Reunion in Detroit
  • Voyager Neptune Encounter at JPL (that was a big deal back in the day)
  • Moving into my first condo
  • And more...

You can download the booklet here:

Be sure to look at the last two pages, showing a timeline of just how busy I used to be outside of work, and why my mom always complained that I was burning the candle at both ends in my 30's.


My MIT Application

 My oldest grandson and I were going through some of these old inventions, most of which were packed in a box in the basement.  One item in that box was a copy of my application to the MIT Media Lab.  I was hoping to attend graduate school there in the early 1990's.

I explained to him that the Media Lab was a different part of MIT; they were looking for students with a diverse background of interests, not just engineering.  Their feeling was that new discoveries happen when you apply knowledge from one field to solve a problem in another.  I put together this portfolio to show the vastly different skill sets I brought to the table.

He looked at the table of contents, which included my NASA experience, many inventions, publications, patents, awards, a book, photography and photojournalism, the fact that I wrote the music for a children's play, that I was an elementary school tutor in college and a 'Big Brother' for many years.  "Wow!", he said.  "So did you get in?"

He was incredulous when I told him they turned me down two years in a row.  "What on earth do you have to do to go there?  Get a Nobel Peace Prize?"  

I think I did him a disservice by sharing that story.  Now he probably thinks MIT is unattainable.

Here's the full portfolio:

(More after the photo.)


In going through this for the first time in 30 years, I noticed these "Works in Progress" ideas, many of which I completely forgot about.  (These are the kinds of ideas you capture before they evaporate if you have a Data Egg. 🙂 )

The Trustworthy Digital Camera ended up being patented.  The Enhanced Voice Recognition is a great idea that I never pursued.  The Adaptive Overhead Projector was never pursued yet is now a staple of every projector in existence (and of course I get no compensation).  And the Holographic Optical Element is still a great idea but smartphone capability has pretty much eclipsed the quality that it would have produced.  

I started my own business...

I left my 10-year career at NASA because I wanted to commercialize some of my patents, and in order to do that I had to learn how to run a business.

The company I started was called E2 Solutions (E2 stood for "Extended Enterprise" - we were an Information Technology consulting firm which had visions of using the new internet to enable remote work from anywhere.)  Our claim to fame was being a "Systems Integrator" - we could hook up your PC, Mac, and Unix boxes on the same network and have them all talk to each other.  We sold computers and services to customers like the Army, Air Force, NASA, Dole (the pineapple company), just to name a few.

The company started with me and a telephone, and I grew it to 22 employees and $10M in revenues in just 3 years.  In five years it crashed and burned because our employee expenses kept going up but our revenues stayed flat - I blame the ineffectiveness of our sales staff.

I learned a lot, but it was a very stressful 5 years.  

After that I went to work for an internet-based insurance company during the dot-com boom.  Made a lot of money then lost a lot of money during the tech crash of 2000.  Tried to raise money to start a new company to commercialize one of my patents (using the Data Egg typing scheme and grafting it onto cell phones.  Texting was a new thing then and all people had to type with were numeric keypads.  You had to press a button 3 times just to get a "C"!!)  After 18 months I plowed through my life's savings.  Giving up, I said, "Screw it!" and went to China to teach English for a semester.