Friday, November 9, 2007

Casualties of the Revolution

There are few instances in life where we can recognize a specific event, action, product, new idea, or thing that could ultimately change the world. It seems that the best we can do is to look back over the past and connect the dots from then to now. Patterns emerge and sometimes there are precipitating events that we can recognize, but by and large, it is a landscape that consists of gradual reform, not distinct pivot points. In the world of politics we see a lot of reformers, but few revolutionaries. It is only when these events foment such radical change that it cannot be ignored any longer that we are swept into the history books as giving witness to a meaningful time and a place. History books are full of examples of revolutionaries, but in fact, they are few in number, and even radical change takes time and the use of an historical lens to bring it into focus. When the change doesn’t involve war or politics it is even harder to pinpoint an origin. But, it always starts with an idea.

Karl Marx had the idea, Lenin had the hammer. Rarely do time, place, and management expertise conspire to aid in the adoption of a radical idea. Even more rare is the individual who has a revolutionary idea and the expertise to capitalize on it. There have been many more good ideas thought up than implemented. Of course, there were people like Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Edison who created new ideas, or managed existing ideas and made them real, but again these are very few and very far between. Only their unique vision propelled them forward in the face of skepticism and failure and an inert society.

There is money to be made for the person who turns lead into gold, but for most good ideas there must be the confluence of special circumstances to make them a reality. First and foremost, there has to recognition of the practicality of a good idea in the first place. Alexander Fleming is given credit for the discovery of Penicillin, but he was not the first to have his bacterial cultures decimated by contaminating mold, only the first to think that this finding was important. Every good idea needs a champion to recognize its worth and potential contribution.

Second, the idea has to be able to be applied in a way that saves time or money, or creates ways to save time or make money. It has to be useful to society in which it is introduced. Chinese invented black powder and used it solely for entertainment, but later, it was adopted as gun powder by societies that were much more aggressive and saw the competitive advantage of guns over swords.

Third, it must be widely acknowledged and adopted by society. The third ingredient is not a given. Many a good idea has floundered when somebody was not ready to adopt it, and many a non-adopter left behind. The Decca Recording Company turned down the Beatles just before they became the biggest selling music group of all time. Thomas Watson, then Chairman of IBM, was sure that then entire market for computers consisted of 4 or 5 clients. His board of Directors was smarter than he was regarding the potential market size. This is why the idea that is owned by persistent champion is so important to its ultimate acceptance.

Junior high and high school science projects are typically born less of creativity than of the more tried and true. They are not particularly good places to find new ideas. Budding student scientists strive to duplicate the experiments that they find in their science texts, on the internet, or from the nostalgic reminiscences of their parents. If you have ever been to a local school science fair you have seen them all laid out on tables – the practical expression of the hypotheses printed in block letters on the threefold poster board background. Explanatory text printed with photos of the experiment in progress pasted to the board, and then the results in real life sitting in the foreground. These are proud moments for parents as they stand among the bean plants, copper wire, and solar panels, but few would think that any one of these experiments will change their lives.

The projects in any science fair represents literally hundreds of hours of family dynamics played out at the dinner table and on whatever work surfaces are handy as parents and kids work to bring this kind of study to life. These projects tend to be cooperative efforts, either with the parents helping their children gather material, or ideas, or framing the hypothesis, or more routinely arguing about exactly who needs to stay out of whom’s way. There has been more than one mother who had to make a place in the refrigerator for a bean plant that had to be kept in the dark and cold, perhaps another on the kitchen counter to bask in the window light.

My family was no different. My sister conducted two of these science projects. The first was a routine Bean Plant Experiment that encroached on the family’s health and cleanliness by placing a potted plant in the refrigerator for a week or two of dark and cold. (A by product of her experiment was to actually prove that the refrigerator light goes out when the door is closed.) A couple of years later, she did a second science project that actually changed the world as we know it today. The year was 1966.

The project was unassuming, but only slightly more clever than routine. It was not the idea that ended up being used outright, but the catalyst for what ultimately came about. Her experiment was on thermocouples. A simple experiment that measured the fluctuation in voltage when a couple of lengths of dissimilar metal wires were twisted together and their joints either heated or cooled, or in the absence of external heating or cooling, when a current was applied to the device the points would become hot or cold and the differences could be measured.

Thermocouples had been around a long time. My dad came up with the idea for her, but it was Kathy’s project and she researched and put it together. It was fun to do and fairly unique in that not many kids ever thought to test a thermocouple hypothesis. She earned an A.

The revolution began innocently enough. Soon after the science fair, Dad’s boyhood friend, Max, came to visit. Like my dad, Max was an entrepreneur. A self-sufficient product of the depression who knew hard work and was familiar with his own bootstraps. Max was in the Hospital identification band business. He manufactured, sold and distributed ID bands for hospital patients and was sensitive to the needs of the modern medical profession.

They got to talking as old friends do; comparing notes on family happenings and Kathy’s science project came up. Max had never seen a thermocouple work before and in a few minutes they were recreating Kathy’s science project in the kitchen. Max wondered aloud if they could use this technology for taking temperatures. Hospitals and Doctors waste a lot of time waiting for temperatures to registers on glass thermometers. There was a little spark between the two of them as they talked. Sure, this would be possible. How fast could they get a thermocouple to register a correct temperature? They experimented with wire, matches, and ice to test their theories. With their crude apparatus, they determined that it would take less than a minute. Max got more excited. He started to think this through. That shaved a least a couple of minutes off the use of a glass thermometer. It would still have to be used under the tongue. (That was familiar.) It also meant that the device would have to be stored in an antiseptic solution, wiped down, or used with some sort of disposable sleeve. It would also require more storage space than traditional thermometers. This could create certain problems with waste, supplies, office routine, perhaps creating barriers to adoption that might be difficult to overcome.

They had latched onto this idea with a fury akin to a dog on a pant cuff. They just couldn’t let go of its potential. They sat down at the kitchen table and kicked around more thoughts. Is under the tongue the only place you could get an accurate temperature reading? Why? Because it’s close to an artery. Was there any other location they could they use? How about, one of them postulated, in the ear? It is close to the carotid artery; there was little air movement and the temperature had to be fairly constant in the ear. But, how could they do that? A thermocouple required close contact to bring it to the temperature of its surroundings. It would take too long and be too uncomfortable for the patient. No, a thermocouple would not work. “How about an infrared reader,” my dad suggested. The years of his subscription to Popular Mechanics was paying off.

Max was even more curious. They had nothing to test this theorem. We didn’t just happen to have any infrared devices lying around the house to experiment with. But, Dad pulled out the encyclopedia and old copies of Popular Science and they studied at the kitchen table until they were both satisfied that this was the way to go. It would revolutionize modern medicine. They would build a thermometer that looked just like an Otoscope. It would look into the patient’s ear and within a few seconds register the patient’s temperature. Doctors were already used to using such a device to diagnose earaches. No antiseptics would be required. There was no potential for cross patient contamination. The temperature would more accurate than any glass thermometer because the patient’s reading could be controlled. Kids could talk all they wanted to and their reading would still be correct. It would work for animals too! That would open up the veterinary market to their product. Their concept was perfect, but was it practical?

Max had the contacts and they both had a little seed money. Dad had his own business to manage and Max was already in the medical supply business. It was only logical that Max take point. Max took the concept around to some engineering firms and found one that could make it happen. He negotiated design and development contracts with the company, and by late 1971, I held in my hand a battery powered infrared thermometer – the very first of its kind. It was revolutionary.

Of course, there was still work to be done. It needed a few refinements and lots of testing to insure accuracy. It needed be smarter so that it would not be “blinded” by very high temperatures. It needed to have some internal controls so that it would only measure temperatures within a certain range instead of anything and everything. Just a little more tweaking before it was ready for market.

As any of you who have worked on building a house know, that after the foundation, the walls and roofing are the first things to go up and the house looks nearly finished. The fact is that it’s only about 10 percent done and all the finish works takes the other 90 percent of the effort. Product development is no different, and the “tweaking” that was required to get this infrared thermometer to market was enormous. The partnership soon ran out of money. Venture capital was not nearly as easy to find in the early 1970’s as it was in the boom years of high tech and the internet in the mid to late ‘90s.

Without money, the miracle product began to slip away. In a shortsighted effort to preserve their small capital stake, Max had not patented the idea -- he had let the engineering company do that. The rights to the product reverted to them when Max and Dad were not able to meet the demand for payment for the additional required work. He had not consulted an attorney to guide him through the business processes and his own legal rights. Perhaps, Max let his optimism blind him to the finer points of practicality. Whatever the circumstances, the story turned ugly, hopeless, despairing, and Max ended up taking his own life. Perhaps there were other things going on in Max’s life that I was not privy to, but seeing his excitement around the kitchen table that one afternoon, this would have been enough.

The infrared thermometer languished for another twelve years before someone again recognized the potential of a good idea. In 1983, this thermometer finally hit the medical market with an enormous impact. It helped revolutionize health care in the United States and the world. Six million units sold almost overnight. Within months, they were in every doctor’s office, every hospital, every grocery and drugstore. In the last twenty years the cost and size have both been driven down so that this product is nearly ubiquitous with many more millions of units sold. Even the idea they had originally rejected, the thermocouple thermometer, made its way into the market place, and has been even more successful because the technology it was based on was not so demanding. Fortunes made, fortunes lost.

Revolutions always begin with indefatigable promise and they are what we make them. Someone must pay the piper as the harbinger of change to come. Sometimes there is a good idea. Sometimes we recognize it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can do something about it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it catches on like wildfire, sometimes it doesn’t. But, one thing is true; revolutions are not without their casualties. If we are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, we can see it all happen and be satisfied. I regret only that Max could not sit around our kitchen table one more time to start another one.

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