The inventor's life

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos looks at Elwood "Woody" Norris, who got his start in a gag-writing contest.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Some people become inventors to better humanity. Elwood "Woody" Norris became one by trying to win a gag-writing contest.

Back in 1961, Norris--who this week received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention--read an article in an electronics magazine about a razor with no blade.

"It ionized your whiskers," he recalled. The article turned out to be an April Fools' joke, but at the bottom there was a note stating that the magazine would give $200 to someone who came up with an article for next year.

Prepping for the 1962 contest, Norris wrote about a tone arm for a record player that moved across the record in a straight line, rather than in an arc.

"Literally as I was licking the envelope, I decided to call a hi-fi store," he recalled. The store loved it. He called some more. Instead of sending the article, he decided to build the turntable. Years later, he commercialized it and sold to a stereo manufacturer for $20,000.


Since then, he's devised a lot of things--an artificial hip, an earpiece for cell phones, a device that became a precursor to the sonogram. Most came out of his American Technology Corp. (ATC). He also co-founded AirScooter, which makes personal helicopters.

Just as important, he embodies the gung-ho optimism associated with his profession. From Thomas Edison to Billy Mays (that hairy guy who sells Oxy Clean on cable channels), inventors seem far more charged up on enthusiasm than the average person.

Keeping that enthusiasm alive isn't easy. For one thing, everyone assumes you're crazy. Costs are high, too. When Norris started, filing a patent might cost about $800. Now it can run $8,000 to $10,000.

"Lawyers have priced it beyond the reach of the average guy," he explained, adding that "if you get rid of all patents, you cripple the motivation to create."

Since the 1920s, big companies and large universities have begun to absorb more of the field, and these institutions often don't welcome independents, preferring instead to trust those from the Ph.D. circuit. Tinkering, though, is a tough habit to give up.

"There is no inventor without a garage," Norris said.

The next invention Norwood hopes to make big is HyperSonic Sound, or HSS, a machine that lets you precisely control the placement of sound.

The system consists of a small box that converts conventional sound recordings into electric signals. The signals are then fed into a device that looks like a crepe pan. The device, which

houses a vibrating membrane, then converts the signals into ultrasonic waves. Turned to a particular point in a room--a chair, a couch, a window--the panlike object makes it seem as if the sound is emanating from that spot. If it isn't pointed in your direction, you won't hear the sound.

Sanitation companies are examining whether HSS can be deployed so that only people directly behind garbage trucks hear the annoying "ee ee ee" sound when the trucks back up.
"Imagine you're walking by a Coke machine," he says, pointing a prototype crepe pan at my head and hitting a little button. Suddenly, the fizzy sound of coke pouring over ice surrounds me.

McDonald's has installed HSS systems in select restaurants to see if they can help boost sales. ("There's a restaurant at the Aerospace Museum that does $1 million a day," Norris exclaims.). A couple of Las Vegas shows employ the system to throw sound into the audience. Trash collection companies are examining whether HSS can be deployed so that only people directly behind garbage trucks hear the annoying "ee ee ee" warning sound when the trucks back up.

HSS systems, which have been under development at ATC for nine years, sport a number of advantages over regular speakers, Norris claimed. For one thing, the sound can be directed fairly precisely. Hence, if your spouse is sleeping, the sound from the television can be directly pointed at you in HSS-enabled TV. Your husband or wife won't hear a thing.

Ultrasonic waves also don't degrade as fast. Someone 100 feet away will hear the same thing, at the same volume, that you hear while standing right in front of the speaker.

ATC came up with a similar directional sound device for the military after the U.S.S. Cole incident in 1998, when a suicide boat crashed into a navy vessel. For ship-to-ship communications, he said, "it can go for a mile over water." The company also touts HSS as suitable for "portable 'bull horn' type devices for communicating with a specific person in a crowd." New York and other cities have adopted the technology for crowd control.

"It's great for clearing birds off runways," he said. "You play the sound of their main predator. They don't get used to that one."

True to the backyard ethos of invention, HSS didn't emerge from a blinding insight during a three-day think tank.

"I got the idea while watching TV," he said. "A TV has three dots--red, green and blue--and it makes pictures by mixing light waves. So I thought, 'what else could you mix?'"

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