Woody Norris: Birth of an Inventor

Woody Norris has a saying he likes to repeat to anyone who will listen. “Nothing has been invented yet,” he says, “we’re only just getting started.” Sure, more than 8 million patents have been issued by the U.S. Patent Office alone so far, but according to Norris, those were the easy inventions.

“The good, easy, teeny-weeny stuff is gone. Hula hoops, the flashlight, the wheelbarrow and the wheel, the ladder, they’re gone. The light bulb, a coil of wire in a vacuum, how lucky was that? Stuff is more complicated today,” Norris says before reverting back to his mantra. “I’ll say it again: almost nothing is invented yet.”

This kind of talk might sound ludicrous coming from anyone else, but Woody Norris has proven the point by doing what few can: inventing products that will change the world, over and over again.

Back in the 1960s, Norris designed one of his first inventions, an early ultrasound device which is widely considered to be the precursor to the sonogram. Since then, he has built an ultralight helicopter intended for personal flight, created a super sensitive microphone that revolutionized cell phone headsets and more recently, developed a hypersonic sound system that can actually shoot sounds at a specific person  in the same way that lasers aim light. This last invention has been used for everything from advertising to scaring pirates from long distances.

All in all, Norris has more than 60 patents in the U.S. and hundreds more abroad. More than that, Norris has managed to do what many inventors hope to: make a good living from his inventions and gain a little notoriety in the process. His inventions have been praised by many publications like The New York Times and Popular Science, and in 2005, Norris was awarded the prestigious Lamelson-MIT prize.

Norris spoke with Opening Lines about his very first invention, the incredible story behind his big break and what inventors today need to do in order to become successful.

Opening Lines: What are some of your earliest memories tinkering around with gadgets as a kid?

Norris: Well, I remember one year I got a radio for Christmas, a nice little tabletop contact radio with tubes in it, and I burned up the selenium rectifier in it, and if you’ve ever done that [editor’s note: I haven’t] it puts out a very toxic green smoke. I was choking around the house for like half an hour, and I never could get the radio to go again. I didn’t even know what the thing was that I’d burnt out. Sometime later, I figured out it was a selenium rectifier.

In high school, I read a couple books on electronics and I kept thinking, what could I make out of different things. I would take pieces and parts of one electronic device and hook it up with a part of something else and try to make a walkie talkie, or try to make some kind of recorder.

“I must have been a slow starter, because I was always really good at electronics and math and stuff like that, but I spent my youth reading Superman comics.”

But I came from a very poor family, so poor in fact that much of the time that I was in high school, we lived in houses with outdoor toilets and often lived in houses that didn’t have hot and cold running water. We had to boil water from a spring on a pan on the stove.

So I had this routine particularly in 11th and 12th year of high school, I would pull this wagon of mine around to radio repair stores. I would tell them that I was trying to learn to fix radios, and I’d ask if they had any junk radios. Then, I’d load up the wagon with all the junk stuff I could get. I never had a car, never had a bicycle, I just had that wagon. And in our backyard, there was a chicken coop without chickens, which I scrubbed and cleaned. It smelled terrible, and had a dirt floor. There were no real windows and it was freezing in the winter. I put up shelves made of old wooden planks and I had radios everywhere. And I succeeded in getting most of them working just by tinkering with them. I guess that really got me started on the idea of my fascination with electronics and sound.

OL: Is it fair to say that you had an inkling from a very young age that you’d like to be an inventor?

Norris: I’ve got to be honest and say that I can’t say I thought of being an inventor back then, I just enjoyed ripping radios apart. But looking back on it now, I was an inventor at birth, I just didn’t know it.

OL: So when did you stop destroying old radios and actually try to invent something new?

Norris: Well right after high school, I decided to go into the Air Force and when I got out, I was immediately able to land a job at the University of Washington in the engineering experiments station. While there, I took a lot of classes and soon came up with my first idea for an invention. But it was kind of a joke.

In April of 1960 or 61, there was an issue of Radio and TV News, an electronics mag, which had an article about a new invention that was a shaver with no blades, no motor; it ionized your whiskers. And the further I read, the less I believed it and sure enough at the end, it said April Fools. Below that, there was a little box that probably changed the direction of my life without me knowing it at the time. It said, “Editors note: If you write next year’s April Fools article, we’ll pay you $200.” I was making $400 a month at the university at the time, so that was a appealing.

So I wrote the article about an idea for a new phonograph tone arm that went in a straight line across a record, instead of pivoting back and cutting an arc across a record. And I thought I better try this out on some people, so I started calling all the hi-fi stores in the greater Seattle area where I lived and before the day was out, I’d probably called them all. Everyone of them not only believed me, they wanted to know where they could get the product because they wanted to carry it. So I decided not to send in the April Fool’s article because I was going to actually make it. That was the catalyst that pulled the trigger and from then on I was an inventor.

OL: You mentioned that you joined the Air Force right after high school. Why did you go that route rather than try to land some kind of engineering job in the private sector or go to college instead? Clearly you had an interest in that line of work early on.

Norris: I must have been a slow starter, because I was always really good at electronics and math and stuff like that, but I spent my youth reading Superman comics. Thankfully I became a very good reader which is critical for success in any field.

In any case, I always thought I would get into electronics, but in the town where I graduated high school, there was only one electronics place. I put in a job application there, and I got frustrated like a month after school let out senior year and joined the Air Force. While I was in training, my mom called me up and told me they gave me the job.  But I’m really glad I didn’t get that because you know, the path you take off in totally changes your future.

“I was an inventor at birth,” Norris says. “I just didn’t know it.”

When I was in the Air Force, I would dream up things, but I was so poor all during that part of my life that I couldn’t even afford parts. But there was an electronics shop on the base that had all kinds of parts, which I learned from. And my training in the Air Force was all about electronics. Still, you know, I didn’t make the first invention until more than a year after I got out of the Air Force.

OL: So you’re a year out of the Air Force, teaching at a university for not much money and you’ve finally made your first invention. How did you go from that to becoming one of the most prolific and lucrative inventors around? What was your big break?

Norris: Well a big thing happened shortly after the first invention, which was really significant for me staying on the line of being an inventor. Otherwise I might still be at the university.

One day I was walking back from the university to my house and there was a guy sitting on my front porch who I vaguely recognized. I used to go to church in those days and I remembered I’d seen him in church. Anyway, he had flown up from Utah and when he saw me, he said, “Are you that Woody Norris inventor guy?” I must have bragged it up before that or something. In any case, he said he had a proposition for me. He said, “Me and about 3 or 4 other guys grew up together, kept in touch and always said that no matter what our career path was, we would do something together if we could. So we put together this idea for a company and we all threw some money in and we’re going to go public… but the only thing we lack is a product.” I said, “That’s very backwards, but I guess that’s ok.” So he said, “The reason I’m here is if you can dream up some product that we like, we would give you an equal amount of shares of stock when we go public. We won’t be able to pay you any money except for parts, but we could give you some shares of stock.” So I said,”Alright, I’ll do that.”

That was on a Friday and by Sunday or Monday, I’d thought of the idea and called him up to tell him.

My training in the Air Force had been in Doplar radar, and I thought that you could probably use the Doplar effect with ultrasound to look through the skin, and if something under the skin was moving, it would bounce back and you could decode it and hear it through a speaker. So I told him about that on the telephone and he liked the idea a lot. He said, “Get going on it, save your receipts and we’ll reimburse you and fly you down.” And within the next week or two I made a prototype, with a flashlight barrel that I got at Radio Shack, with surplus parts, a transistor radio speaker and stuff like that.

OL: So just to be clear, you’re saying that you thought of the idea for what eventually became the sonogram in only two days, and made the prototype out of supplies from Radio Shack?

Norris: Well, I don’t take claim by any means for the sonogram, but yeah, it was kind of the precursor to the sonogram. That was cool, it was luck. My whole life has been that, luck.

OL: Okay, so you’ve delivered this great invention to the company and then what happened? Did your life change overnight?

Norris: They loved it and they gave me stock, but the company wasn’t even public yet, it was just shares. I put it away, misplaced it. Then they called me back about a year later and I was still struggling to pay my rent. A lady calls me up from the company to tell me they went public, but says, “We’re not doing your invention yet because it’s too complicated and we wanted to start off with something easier, but we’re going to raise some more money from the stock market and thought you would like it if we registered your shares of stock since you’re not affiliated with the company.” I said that would be nice, I could use some money. She said, “The book here shows you have about 40,000 shares and right now it’s worth a bit over $8 a share. This is like ’61 or ’62 now and I thought, shit I’m rich.

“I always thought I would get into electronics, but in the town where I graduated high school, there was only one electronics place,” Norris says. “I put in a job application there, and I got frustrated like a month after school let out senior year and joined the Air Force.”

I sold all the stocks quick enough that it brought a lot of cash in. Then I quit my job at the university, bought every piece of equipment I could ever conceive of, rented a little place and became an invetor, and that’s the last I really ever had a job with anybody else.

OL: As you yourself admit, there’s clearly been a lot of luck involved in your success, but obviously most inventors don’t get nearly as lucky. So I wonder if you honestly think it’s feasible today for someone to dream of becoming a successful inventor, and if so, what steps should one take to make this happen?

Norris: My whole life has been luck, but if you ask me, the most critical thing to make it as an inventor is you have to be a good salesman. If you’re not rich and you have to go raise some money, you have to be able to present yourself, speak well and convince somebody to part with money. I’ve always been very lucky at doing that. And while this may seem trite, you have to be absolutely honest. If you’ve got an investor and you don’t treat that guy like what he really is, gold, then you’ll never raise another dime. You have to be absolutely forthcoming with problems and with successes.

Obviously, you also have to get lots of education. The upcoming fields right now are nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetics. That’s where we are just learning to scratch the surface. Nanotechnology in particular is going to be the future.

The problem typically with independent inventors today, at least the ones who write me letters and e-mail me, is that they haven’t done their homework and don’t have the knowledge. This is especially necessary now. There’s been almost 8 million patents issued and a lot of the really easy stuff has been done. But again, it’s my contention that almost nothing has been invented yet. We’re just getting started.

Image courtesy of TED.

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