Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light

These days, we have LED light bulbs that will last a decade. But it wasn’t so long ago that incandescent lamps were all we had, and they burned out after several months. Thomas Edison’s early light bulbs used bamboo filaments that burned out very quickly. An inventor and draftsman named Lewis Latimer improved Edison’s filament by encasing it in cardboard, earning himself a patent the process.

Lewis had a hard early life, but he succeeded in spite of the odds and his lack of formal education. He was a respected draftsman who earned several patents and worked directly with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Although Lewis didn’t invent the light bulb, he definitely made it better and longer-lasting. Continue reading “Lewis Latimer Drafted The Future Of Electric Light”

Fail Of The Week: Bright Idea For LED Signs Goes Bad

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.

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The Back And Forth Of Windshield Wipers And Patent Lawsuits

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of having some brainstorm idea, prototyping it, and then have some huge company put it into worldwide production? The problem is, that’s not really as easy as it sounds in most cases. Take the case of Robert Kearns. Never heard of him? You use the result of one of his patents pretty often; Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper.

If he had sold the patent to one of the big carmakers, this would be a short article. Not that he didn’t try. But it didn’t go very well and while, in the end, he prevailed, it was a very expensive victory.

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AI Patent Trolls Now On The Job For Drug Companies

Love it or loathe it, the pharmaceutical industry is really good at protecting its intellectual property. Drug companies pour billions into discovering new drugs and bringing them to market, and they do whatever it takes to make sure they have exclusive positions to profit from their innovations for as long a possible. Patent applications are meticulously crafted to keep the competition at bay for as long as possible, which is why it often takes ages for cheaper generic versions of blockbuster medications to hit the market, to the chagrin of patients, insurers, and policymakers alike.

Drug companies now appear poised to benefit from the artificial intelligence revolution to solidify their patent positions even further. New computational methods are being employed to not only plan the synthesis of new drugs, but to also find alternative pathways to the same end product that might present a patent loophole. AI just might change the face of drug development in the near future, and not necessarily for the better.

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You Won’t Hear This Word On The Street

The simplest answer to a problem is not necessarily always the best answer. If you ask the question, “How do I get a voice assistance to work on a crowded subway car?”, the simplest answer is to shout into a microphone but we don’t want to ask Siri to put toilet paper on the shopping list in front of fellow passengers at the top of our lungs. This is “not a technical issue but a mental issue” according to [Masaaki Fukumoto], lead researcher at Microsoft in “hardware and devices” and “human-computer interaction.” SilentVoice was demonstrated in Berlin at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology which showed a live transcription of nearly silent speech. A short demonstration can be found below the break.

SilentVoice relies on a different way of speaking and a different way of picking up that sound. Instead of traditional dictation in which we exhale while facing a microphone, it is necessary to place the microphone less than two millimeters from the mouth, usually against the lips, and use ingressive speech which is just whispering while inhaling. The advantage of ingressive over egressive speech is that without air being blown over the microphone, the popping of air gusts is eliminated. With practice, it is as efficient as normal speaking but that practice will probably involve a few dizzy spells from inhaling more than necessary.

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This Robot Swims, Skates, And Crawls

You often hear that art imitates life, but sometimes technology does too. Pliant Energy Systems’ Velox robot resembles an underwater creature more than it does a robot because it uses undulating fins to propel itself, as you can see in the video below.

The video shows the beast skating, but also swimming, and walking. It really does look more like a lifeform than a device. According to the company, the robot has excellent static thrust/watt and is resistant to becoming entangled in plants and other debris.

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Julius Lilienfeld And The First Transistor

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.

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