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Patent mystery no longer pending

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reversed itself on who invented the microcontroller.

Who invented the single-chip microcontroller now used in millions of electronic devices including computer keyboards, calculators, garage-door openers, and automatic ignition systems? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office at first said it was Southern California inventor Gilbert Hyatt, but yesterday reversed itself and gave the honors instead to Gary Boone, a former engineer at Texas Instruments.

The decision, which capped a review of a 1990 ruling that granted patent No. 4,942,516 to Hyatt, won't mean much financially to TI or Boone, but they have gotten the credit in the history books.

It could mean a reversal of fortune, however, for Hyatt, who had licensed the microcontroller design to several Japanese and European companies after the PTO's 1990 ruling in his favor and has raked in at least $70 million in royalties, according to a report in The New York Times. It's unclear whether he has to pay the money back because it depends on the terms in the individual contracts.

A microcontroller is a chip that contains its own software, unlike a microprocessor, which is controlled by external software.

Hyatt, who has never in fact manufactured a microcontroller, filed his original patent application in 1970, while TI was developing the TMS100, which it released in late 1971. Hyatt later amended his application in 1977, adding significant new detail in describing his invention. While that amended application, filed six years after TI released its chip, didn't bother the PTO examiners in 1990, it does bother them now--and has prompted them to reverse the earlier decision.

Hyatt, who now lives in Las Vegas, plans to appeal, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

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