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  • Writer's picturetony

Patent Bending

This article was originally published in my internal NSA blog in 2012, although the story is from the mid 1980s.


Patent Bending 2012.04.02 - 08:06 am

Early in my career, I had the chance to work closely with many excellent Engineers (Electrical, Computer Engineering, Signals, etc.). Without passing any value judgment here, let me say that I always found the experience to be both amusing and educational. In particular, a number of them were consumed by the idea of inventing something special - some device or thing that would make them rich and famous. I won't go through some of the wild ideas I heard, but I can say that I don't recall any of these fine folks ever leaving federal service for fame and fortune. I never had such skill or even desire, but here's the back story that inspired my only hardware invention. And you'll notice that I also continued in federal service for another couple of decades. We used to have our desks in a former "tube room" (does anyone else remember those days?) with two glass half-walls facing into two other rooms housing minicomputers (mid-grade DEC VAXes as I recall). So as I sat at my desk developing software for an IBM PC (dual 5 ¼” floppy drives, no hard drive!), I was facing a glass wall, often face to face with someone working at a CRT hooked to the VAX, with the glass wall between us. Of course, the unspoken protocol was that you never made eye contact with your counterpart in the other room. One day a young man was seated directly across from me in the VAX room. I wasn't paying attention or making eye contact (per the unspoken protocol), but at some point, I noticed that he was nodding off. It started with eyes blinking and closing, then the slight head nods, moving to a small circular motion, escalating to the full "bobbing bird" action. (Does anyone else remember the "drinking bird" toys from places like Edmund Scientific?). Don was sitting near me, and at some point, we both had a silent smile at the drama unfolding on the other side of the glass. Now the problem with the "bobbing bird" motion is that the angle of downward bob continues to increase. Eventually, you will exceed a critical angle where the angle of the bob downwards is too great to allow recovery upwards. And so it happened that day. The young man did a full face plant into his keyboard. And that was just Act One of this comedy. His features must have been perfectly placed to execute what I recall was a repeated [ctrl-G], or "bell" sound on the keyboard, clearly audible through the glass. And then of course, the facial-keyboard collision triggered a skyward leap, interrupted sharply by both knees colliding with the lab table, sending the keyboard skittering upwards. In violation of the afore-mentioned protocol, I now found myself looking directly at my seriously startled wide-eyed neighbor - doing my very best to avoid biting my own tongue off to avoid laughing hysterically at this scene. Later that day, Don and I were having a good laugh retelling this story as we unpacked some new hardware. As I told the story, I opened a small box and pulled out a slab of dense packing foam shaped and sized like a hardcover book, but with a half-moon shape cut out of one side. In a moment of genius inspired by the story, I took the piece of foam and stuck it onto my forehead pointing straight out. “Hey, if the guy had had this, he would have been fine!” Don and I modified the shape of the cutout slightly to better fit a forehead, and created a duct-tape strap to hold it in place. It was good for a short laugh and a story to re-tell. Well, I did retell this story when I was on assignment to Sandia National Labs in the early 90's, surrounded yet again by Engineers. The local prankster, Dave, was so inspired by the story that he created an advertising poster for "The Doze-Guard", extolling its safety virtues, complete with illustration and official NSA certification. This poster hung on my office cork-board for many years, but has since disappeared into history. I think. But if you see such a thing being sold, let me know. I want royalties!


PS: I found the original paper poster in my files! It’s true, I never throw anything away.


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