Typically when we select a project for “Fail to the Week” honors, it’s because something went wrong with the technology of the project. But the tech of [Leo Fernekes]’ innovative LED sign system was never the problem; it was the realities of scaling up to production as well as the broken patent process that put a nail in this promising project’s coffin, which [Leo] sums up succinctly as “The Inventor’s Paradox” in the video below.
The idea [Leo] had a few years back was pretty smart. He noticed that there was no middle ground between cheap, pre-made LED signs and expensive programmable signboards, so he sought to fill the gap. The result was an ingenious “LED pin”, a tiny module with an RGB LED and a microcontroller along with a small number of support components. The big idea is that each pin would store its own part of a display-wide animation in flash memory. Each pin has two terminals that connect to metal cladding on either side of the board they attach to. These two conductors supply not only power but synchronization for all the pins with a low-frequency square wave. [Leo]’s method for programming the animations — using a light sensor on each pin to receive signals from a video projector — is perhaps even more ingenious than the pins themselves.
[Leo]’s idea seemed destined for greatness, but alas, the cruel realities of scaling up struck hard. Each prototype pin had a low part count, but to be manufactured economically, the entire BOM would have to be reduced to almost nothing. That means an ASIC, but the time and expense involved in tooling up for that were too much to bear. [Leo] has nothing good to say about the patent game, either, which his business partners in this venture insisted on playing. There’s plenty of detail in the video, but he sums it up with a pithy proclamation: “Patents suck.”
Watching this video, it’s hard not to feel sorry for [Leo] for all the time he spent getting the tech right only to have no feasible way to get a return on that investment. It’s a sobering tale for those of us who fancy ourselves to be inventors, and a cautionary tale about the perils of participating in a patent system that clearly operates for the benefit of the corporations rather than the solo inventor. It’s not impossible to win at this game, as our own [Bob Baddeley] shows us, but it is easy to fail.
Continue reading “Fail Of The Week: Bright Idea For LED Signs Goes Bad”
In my youth I worked for a paid ambulance service, and while we all lived for the emergency calls, the routine transports were the calls that paid the bills. Compared with the glamor and excitement of a lights-and-siren run to a car wreck or heart attack, transports were dull as dirt. And dullest of all were the daily runs from nursing homes to the dialysis center, where rows of comfy chairs sat, each before a refrigerator-sized machine designed to filter the blood of a patient in renal failure, giving them another few days of life.
Sadly, most of those patients were doomed; many were in need of a kidney transplant for which there was no suitable donor, while some were simply not candidates for transplantation. Dialysis was literally all that stood between them and a slow, painful death, and I could see that at least some of them were cheered by the sight of the waiting dialysis machine. The principles of how the kidneys work have been known since at least the 1800s, but it would take until 1945 for the efforts of a Dutch doctor, using used car parts and sausage casings, to make the predecessor of those machines: the first artificial kidney.
Continue reading “Willem Kolff’s Artificial Organs”
Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.
But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.
Continue reading “Julius Lilienfeld And The First Transistor”
You’ve no doubt been exposed to the ads for various inventor services; you have an idea, and they want to help you commercialize it and get the money you deserve. Whether it’s helping you file legal paperwork, defending your idea, developing it into a product, or selling it, there’s a company out there that wants to help. So which ones are legit, which ones are scams, and what do you really need to make your millions?
Continue reading “Inventor Services – Maybe Right For You – Maybe”
If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”
The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.
Continue reading “PLA: The Plastic That Grows”
Sixty years ago this month, an unassuming but gifted engineer sitting in a lonely lab at Texas Instruments penned a few lines in his notebook about his ideas for building complete circuits on a single slab of semiconductor. He had no way of knowing if his idea would even work; the idea that it would become one of the key technologies of the 20th century that would rapidly change everything about the world would have seemed like a fantasy to him.
We’ve covered the story of how the integrated circuit came to be, and the ensuing patent battle that would eventually award priority to someone else. But we’ve never taken a close look at the quiet man in the quiet lab who actually thought it up: Jack Kilby.
Continue reading “Profiles In Science: Jack Kilby And The Integrated Circuit”
The desire to innovate and change the world can drive one to take dangerous risks. Sometimes, inventors pay the ultimate price. Inventors can be early testers of a device under development, and sometimes pushing the limits of what’s possible has deadly consequences. In this era of warning labels on coffee cups, it’s perhaps worth taking a look back at some inventors of the past who lost their lives in the pursuit of building something new.
Continue reading “Invention Killed The Inventor”