National Inventor's Day: February 11 (Edison's Birthday)


By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

Over two hundred years ago, President George Washington recognized that invention and innovation were fundamental to the welfare and strength of the United States. He successfully urged the First Congress to enact a patent statute as expressly authorized by the U.S. Constitution and wisely advised that ``there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science . . .'' In 1790, the first patent statute initiated the transformation of the United States from an importer of technology to a world leader in technological innovation.

Today, just as in George Washington's day, inventors are the keystone of the technological progress that is so vital to the economic, environmental, and social well-being of this country. Individual ingenuity and perseverance, spurred by the incentives of the patent system, begin the process that results in improved standards of living, increased public and private productivity, creation of new industries, improved public services, and enhanced competitiveness of American products in world markets.

In recognition of the enormous contribution inventors make to the nation and the world, the Congress, pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 140 (Public Law 97 - 198), has designated February 11, 1983, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison, one of America's most famous and prolific inventors, as National Inventors' Day. Such recognition is especially appropriate at a time when our country is striving to maintain its global position as a leader in innovation and technology. Key to our future success will be the dedication and creativity of inventors.

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim February 11, 1983, as National Inventors' Day and call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this 12th day of Jan., in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and seventh.

Ronald Reagan


Paris Underground

SUNDAY, JANUARY 29, 2012 AT 1:35PM

This is an amazing story about a new "Paris Underground" -- a shadowy group "specializing in cartography, infiltration, tunneling, masonry, internal communications, archiving, restoration, and cultural programming."

They've found their way through the ancient tunnels under Paris, and are using their powers for good, instead of evil. They quietly restore antique clocks, repair infrastructure, hold secret film festivals, and restore [my] faith in humanity.

You have to read the article in Wired for the full details.


What it's Really Like Working with Steve Jobs


Steve Jobs

People who worked with Steve Jobs (I'll call him Steve) usually don't talk about it. It's kind of an unwritten rule, partly because he was obsessive about his privacy.

I think that has all changed now, but I'm not exactly sure. I am at least sure that my phone won't ring if I say something about the experience. And I feel compelled to do just that, because there is so much written about Steve, and so few who have actually seen him work. I was one of those people.

And I am becoming aware that LOTS of people are claiming, in one way or another, to have been one of those people. "I worked with Steve Jobs" can mean, "I saw him in the elevator once when I was at a meeting at Apple", or "I worked at Apple during those years, and saw him around campus, although I never actually spoke to him." I actually worked with the guy, and I'm realizing that perhaps I worked with him more closely than almost anyone (save Avie and the many who were in his inner circle for the whole duration of course) — because I worked on products that he cared deeply about.

First, some background. I worked at Adobe Systems in 1985, one of the first handful of people at the company. I was employee #40. After about 5 years, I was searching for something new to do, and got interested in NeXT, because they embraced PostScript (an Adobe technology) and were UNIX-based, two things that I was good at. Being young and brash, I wrote an email message directly to Steve, suggesting that I was just the right guy to work there. In 1991, I started work at NeXT, as Product Manager for Interpersonal Computing. It was the internet, before there was much of an internet. We called it Interpersonal Computing, but nobody paid attention until 5 years later when the WWW was born (also on a NeXT computer, it's worth noting). I reported directly to Steve, in his capacity as "acting VP of Marketing", which was a lifelong title for him.

I left NeXT to start a company to build software for NeXT computers -- RightBrain Software. We built an amazing page layout app called PasteUp, ran two-page spread ads in NeXTWORLD magazine, and had a good old time, except we didn't sell a lot of software, so I went off to do other things for a while.

Many years later, when NeXT acquired Apple for negative -$400M, I was recruited by Steve's right hand man to come in to build iMovie 1.0, in large part because I knew a lot about NeXTSTEP, the technology which was to become MacOS X, and because I think Steve liked PasteUp and liked me and thought I could get it done (we were done ahead of schedule, as it turned out).

I can still remember some of those early meetings, with 3 or 4 of us in a locked room somewhere on Apple campus, with a lot of whiteboards, talking about what iMovie should be (and should not be). It was as pure as pure gets, in terms of building software. Steve would draw a quick vision on the whiteboard, we'd go work on it for a while, bring it back, find out the ways in which it sucked, and we'd iterate, again and again and again. That's how it always went. Iteration. It's the key to design, really. Just keep improving it until you have to ship it.

There were only 3 of us on the team, growing to 4 within the year, with no marketing and very little infrastructure around us. There was paper over the internal windows to keep other Apple employees from knowing what we were doing. Our component in Radar, the bug-tracking database, was called "Tax Department" so nobody would be curious about it. We sat in the same hallway as the Tax Department, actually, and our Senior VP was in charge of Service and Support at the time. Truly a stealth project. There were maybe only 5-10 people in the whole company who knew what we were doing.

When we were done, and the iMac DV shipped with iMovie built in (I think it was October or November of 1998), the world changed, for everybody. Jeff Goldblum appeared in TV ad spots, showing off iMovie. The idea of "personal digital media" was born. This was Steve's vision, and why he put together the iMac DV, with Firewire and iMovie. We called it the Digital Hub strategy internally, to encourage you to put lots of personal digital media on your home computer. It grew quickly from movies to include photos and music (iTunes was repackaged SoundJam, acquired from Casady and Greene in 2000). Before then, very vew people had any personal photos, or music, or home movies on their computers.

Over the ensuing 5 years or so, we built several versions of iMovie and several versions of iPhoto, which came out a couple years after iMovie, but along the same track. Toward the end of my time at Apple, we had standing meetings, once a week, for about 3 or 4 hours, in the Board Room at Apple, to go through what were known internally as the "iApps" — iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, and later iDVD. Over the course of some years, that's a lot of CEO hours devoted to the details of some software apps -- and that was just the part that we saw. I'm sure there were similar meetings for OS X, the Pro apps, the hardware, and everything else that was going on.

Now let me back up a bit.

Steve Jobs was passionate, as everyone knows. What he was passionate about was, I think, quite simple: he liked to build products. I do, too. This we had in common. It is a process which requires understanding the parameters, the goals, and the gives and takes. Stretch what's possible, use technologies that are good, rein it in when the time comes, polish it and ship it. It's a kind of horse sense, maybe a bit like building houses, where you just kind of know how to do it ... or you don't. Steve did.

Not only did he know and love product engineering, it's all he really wanted to do. He told me once that part of the reason he wanted to be CEO was so that nobody could tell him that he wasn't allowed to participate in the nitty-gritty of product design. He was right there in the middle of it. All of it. As a team member, not as CEO. He quietly left his CEO hat by the door, and collaborated with us. He was basically the Product Manager for all of the products I worked on, even though there eventually were other people with that title, who usually weren't allowed in the room :)

One of the things about designing products that can come up is Ego, or Being Right, or whatever that is called. I'm not sure how this evolved, but when I worked with Steve on product design, there was kind of an approach we took, unconsciously, which I characterize in my mind as a "cauldron". There might be 3 or 4 or even 10 of us in the room, looking at, say, an iteration of iPhoto. Ideas would come forth, suggestions, observations, whatever. We would "throw them into the cauldron", and stir it, and soon nobody remembered exactly whose ideas were which. This let us make a great soup, a great potion, without worrying about who had what idea. This was critically important, in retrospect, to decouple the CEO from the ideas. If an idea was good, we'd all eventually agree on it, and if it was bad, it just kind of sank to the bottom of the pot. We didn't really remember whose ideas were which -- it just didn't matter. Until, of course, the patent attorneys came around and asked, but that's a whole nother story.

The Steve that I worked with loved product design, and he loved consumer products, and iMovie and iPhoto were two of the biggest consumer apps ever developed from scratch at Apple, or NeXT, or anywhere else, perhaps. So I think that in some very real sense, I had a better understanding of Steve and how he worked, and what motivated him, than almost anyone in the world. It sounds kind of self-serving to say this, but he and I were a lot alike in that way, and in that process. It was a true give and take, a true collaboration with everyone in the room. Most people never saw that process, and those who did never talk about it. I am privileged to have been there.

I guess I have this to say about it: it wasn't magic, it was hard work, thoughtful design, and constant iteration. Doing the best we knew how with what was available, shaping each release into a credible, solid, useful, product, as simple and direct as we could make it. And we shipped those products, most importantly.

I am off doing other things now, again, but it's still Product Design, and I still love it. That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve's magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.

—Glenn Reid


Shipping Products


Everybody talks about "shipping" products in the software industry. When was the last time somebody actually put software on a truck or airplane and shipped it someplace?

We're contributing to the GNP of America, employing people who make boxes, labels, who drive trucks, use forklifts, and power our country. We're actually SHIPPING products :)

Products Vs Services

SATURDAY, JUNE 18, 2011 AT 4:07PM

Did you ever think about the phrase "Goods and Services"?

They are not combined into one term because they really different from each other.

I have done a lot of software products in the past, and a common question I get is, "what makes you think you can do physical, manufactured products, when you have a background in software?"

The answer I give is essentially that two different kinds of products (software applications, forklift accessories) are more alike than they are different in almost every aspect of their design, branding, packaging, shipping, distribution, and even their engineering.

What people should be asking is how a product-centric software company (Adobe, Apple, Microsoft) thinks they can easily transition from Goods (products) to Services (cloud computing) just because they're both "software"? I would argue that all three of those aforementioned companies have resoundingly FAILED at making the transition to Services. We'll see about iCloud, but MobileMe was bad, Ping is even worse (the social network built into iTunes, an epic failure) and so far, after 10 years of trying, anything web-based from either Adobe or Microsoft has been somewhere between awful and lukewarm.

That's perhaps why "Goods and Services" are in fact treated as two different things -- because they really, really are!


TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2011 AT 9:48P

One of the more satisfying aspects of designing products is when you get actual parts back from manufacturing. Pictured here are die-cast aluminum parts for our Fork Level product, lovingly cast in the U.S. by California Die Casting.

fork level parts

NACCO Material Handling Group

TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2011 AT 9:31PM

Three of us spent a week in Scottsdale, Arizona last month attending an Aftermarket Fair for NMHG, the NACCO Material Handling Group. They're a big manufacturer of forklift trucks and equipment, and this was their event for their Yale and Hyster dealerships.

It was a very well-run event with thoughtful speakers and great people and made us realize what a great slice of America is represented in the material handling industry, and in the NACCO family in particular. We were treated warmly and with respect, despite being new to the industry. We received great interest in our Fork Level product and everyone bent over backwards to help us get our product into the channels and dealerships worldwide. We even sold quite a few units to individual dealers who were there walking the floor of the show, reviewing the aftermarket product offerings.

Fork Level Production


All for just one customer -- dozens of Fork Levels being assembled...

and ready for shipping!

Product Review: Brookstone 360º IPad Stand


Brookstone 360º iPad Stand

This is the first in a series of product reviews, from the point of view of a product design company (Inventor Labs), and from the point of view of a user/owner of the product (me).

I saw this stand in the Brookstone store and liked it, and later my daughter bought it for me for Christmas, so I got to use it firsthand at home.

My first two impressions were: cool, it really does turn 360º and tilt all the way over in both directions, and interesting, it's made of wood. It's unusual for high-tech products to be made of wood. I'm not sure much else in Brookstone is made of wood. I happen to like wood, and do a lot of woodworking myself, but still, it's an odd choice. I suspect it's a cost-reduction technique, rather than trying to machine the same stand out of aluminum or something similar. It certainly is inexpensive, at $29.95.

It works great. It holds the iPad securely, although it's a little tricky getting it in and out of the holder. The sides have curved grippers that are spring-loaded: you pull them apart slightly to slide the iPad in, or to take it out. Once it's in, it's secure, no matter which way you flip or rotate the iPad. It's secure enough that when you're pushing and tapping and dragging on the screen, it doesn't move on you. That's critical, and they got it right.

The best thing about this holder is that it truly will let you orient the iPad any way you want, at almost any viewing angle (the up/down tilt is limited slightly by the base, but you can get it past vertical in both directions). Because the iPad's screen is shiny and reflective, this makes a big difference. Many, many times I've been watching a movie and during a dark scene, where much of the content is dark or black, what I see instead of the movie is a reflection of myself, like a mirror! That's not a good movie-watching experience. Tilting or twisting the iPad to a slightly different angle -- easy with this Brookstone product -- mitigates that significantly.

If you're lying on the couch or in bed and the iPad is beside you, on a table or chair, tilting the screen at a 10º or 15º angle, to match the angle that your head is on the pillow, is a huge win. It's hard to do with almost any other iPad holder that I've seen.

One downside is that if you're actually trying to hold the iPad in your lap, or do the other things that you do with an iPad, you more or less have to take it out of the Brookstone stand. This is the biggest shortcoming of the product: it's a little bit of a pain getting it into and out of the stand. To be fair, however, it's even more of a pain to get the iPad into and out of the official Apple (rubbery) iPad case, and many other iPad cases and stands.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Designing Machines

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2010 AT 12:02PM

There are a few stories that I find myself repeating in meetings with investors, clients, and collaborators. It occurs to me that these are probably fodder for blog postings. This is one of those oft-repeated observations.

I studied Mechanical Engineering in college. I wanted to design machines. I took all kinds of classes called things like Strength of Materials and Dynamics and had labs where we would use a hydraulic press to break something, as we measured its modulus of elasticity and its ability to handle loading of various sorts. It was fascinating stuff.

The last two years of my schooling I was also taking Computer Science classes. It was a new field back then, at the end of the 1970's -- especially compared to Mechanical Engineering. I noticed that I was building machines in my software classes, too. Many of the principles were similar, and the ways of thinking -- like isolating certain parts of a machine and focusing on them as a unit.

When I was nearly ready to graduate I switched my major to Computer Science. I realized that from a true design point of view, there was a lot more freedom in designing software than physical machines. There is no course in Computer Science called Strength of Materials. Algorithms do not have stress/strain curves. Friction does not play a role, and nothing wears out. The materials are free. It's a pure form of design, though constrained by the medium (the world inside the computer) instead of being constrained by the "real world".

I have come to refer to software engineering as the Dr. Seuss version of building machines. You can build ridiculous skyscrapers, endless cantilever beams, or their moral equivalent, knowing they will never break or wear out. You can have a little guy pedaling madly on one end of your machine, a propeller whirling on the top, and lots of, yes, "bells and whistles". Believe me, all software looks on the inside like Dr. Seuss designed it.

I spent 25 years designing and building commercial software. The similarities are still there to designing machines. And yet the engineering has largely gone out of it, because computers are so fast, and the goals so shallow -- there's no need for anything but a hot glue gun to hold together open source modules talking to a SQL database, slapped on a web site. Ship it!

So I'm designing products in the real world now. Not exactly machines, but mechanisms. It's much more satisfying, in the same way that the real world is satisfying. One needs constraints, cost limits, finite availability of materials and processes. It leads to more creative thinking, more true innovation, in my opinion.

Product Naming


Coming up with a great name for a product is getting harder and harder in the information age. The colloquial wisdom about domain names is, "all the good ones are taken." It is even hard to create a new name that isn't a word -- there is competition for what is known as a six-letter pronounceable name.

I had some great product names trademarked in the early 1990's but didn't keep them. Now I wish I had. I was using the name LaunchPad for a product in 1991, which is one of the ones I wish I'd kept.

Naming can be the most important part of a product's success. If it's memorable, invokes an image of the product, it will help sell the product. We all know stories of iconic names that eventually became part of the language, like zipper and escalator and kleenex and baggie.

My favorite product name this week is Webster. Combined with the packaging, which puts an anthropomorphic face to go with the name, and the double meaning for a cobweb cleaning tool, this name meets all the criteria for greatness.

Product Design Vs. Product Marketing

MONDAY, AUGUST 16, 2010 AT 8:34PM

There is a yin/yang relationship between a product's design and its marketing. It seems simple on the surface to say that great products will automatically be successful, and mediocre products will not. Except we know that not to be true.

Products are mystical and ethereal. What most people think of as a "great product" is something that catches our fancy, that excites us, that causes us to stop and look. Some of the most-read blogs of all time are product blogs: Gizmodo, Engadget, Boing Boing. People love to hear about (and forward links to) cool, innovative, wacky, and weird products.

Do they buy them, though?

Sometimes. A product is successful when people buy a lot of them. A product is interesting when a lot of people read about it. A product is "great" when ... what, exactly, makes a product great?

One school of thought is that a product's design is inherently what makes it great, or clunky, or whatever. But it is not necessarily so. The relationship between greatness and design (or branding) can go the other way: if a product is wildly successful, it is considered to be of great design.

Our brains are not wired to appreciate pure aesthetic beauty entirely distinct from the underlying value proposition. A man is not attractive unless he is rich, capable, or successful. It may well be that a product is not beautiful unless it is useful, provokes admiration/envy, or otherwise provides value. We don't like to admit this, but I think it is true at its core.

This suggests that a brilliant, beautiful product design is not enough. It may provoke curiosity and admiration, but if it doesn't sell, it won't be considered to be a great design for very long.

I have always valued design, and consider it to be important to producing great products. But I am persuaded that a reasonably good design with excellent marketing is a far better bet than a truly inspired design with no push behind it.


Approximate And Revise

TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2010 AT 5:30PM

I feel like blogging about a nuance of the design process that I have always felt was important but poorly understood.

Design is, at its core, the act of building. Designing, yes, but designing for construction. If it never gets built, you didn't design it, you just dreamed it up.

Design is also the act of building something that has not been built before. It is a new work, either highly imaginative or just a little bit new. Doesn't matter. You're doing fresh thinking, coming up with a way to build something that's new.

Trying to solve a multi-faceted problem with many variables is not easy, even with computers. The process is not to sit and think for days on end, solving all the problems in your mind, and then just sit down and draw a picture of the final design. Even relatively simple design processes do not work like that.

Instead, you create scaffolding, build temporary bits and pieces, "nail down one corner of the tent", put in "placeholders", and so on. You create a sketch in midair, then improve upon it. You approximate and revise. This is why people build cardboard models of houses, even when they have drawings. It's why we hold two boards up in approximate position and look at them before deciding to put nails into them and make them permanent, or hold a dress against a leg to see how a hemline will look. It's why we experiment, try things, and prototype. Because you just can't see all the way through a design problem space without sketching it out first.

This is a seemingly inexact science, but it does not have to be. You can have a very rigorous set of variables, but put temporary values into each one until you have the more accurate number. Soduko works like that, right?

Imagine you are building a wooden box to put jewelry in, or pencils. There are only a few variables -- width, height, depth, and wall thickness. You can draw a picture of the box, you can make detailed engineering drawings with front view, side view, and top view, and you can print them out in actual size. But what you do instead is grab a few scrap pieces of wood and start making a little box on the table top, saying out loud, "maybe about this long, and about yay wide?" You're approximating, and you'll revise later. "That's about 6 or 7 inches. Let's make it 6." Now you're revising.

There are lots of more complicated examples, of course, but the process is remarkably similar. You can put placeholder values into a structure with tens or hundreds of variables, and if your first-order approximations are reasonable, you'll have a pretty surprising first cut at your design. If, instead, you try to "think it through" too much on the front end, you will get stuck.

I wish I had a better name for it than Approximate and Revise, though that's more or less what it is.

Just One Word: Plastics.

TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2010 AT 3:08PM

"Ben, just one word. Are you listening? 'plastics'. There's a great future in plastics. Think about it."

That line is from The Graduate, which was made in 1967. That's 50 years ago, when plastics were still a relatively new technology. Amazing.

I thought of that movie dialog today, because we're working on a new product design that will likely be made of injection-molded [recycled] plastics. Plastic is a fascinating material, and the processes around it are quite involved. There is a lot still to be done in terms of sustainability and recycling, but it has become an almost universal product material.

Paper Weights

TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2010 AT 3:05PM

I have the window open at the office today, and there's a nice breeze. Modern office buildings don't usually have windows that open, which is something I used to miss when I worked in big gleaming offices.

But just now a whole stack of papers actually blew right off my desk onto the floor, getting all mixed up. I was surprised by this--it hasn't happened to me before.

My inventor's mind kicked in: I wonder what could be done to prevent that from happening again? I almost laughed out loud as I realized the answer: a paper weight!

In high-tech circles, a paper weight is a euphemism for some obsolete bit of technology that is no longer useful. I must have lots of those around here. I think I'll use one as a paper weight -- to keep my papers from blowing away again....

Project Benches

SUNDAY, JUNE 6, 2010 AT 6:08PM

I've been developing a way to use reusable table tops for projects, so the bench space doesn't have to be cleared off when switching from one project to another. At Inventor Labs we do a fair amount of parallel development, and this approach has helped us a lot.

We use solid-core door blanks as bench tops. They're smooth, flat, heavy, and a good size (80"x36"). And you can buy them at Home Depot for about $56, which is pretty good for a solid benchtop that size.

We attach two 24" cleats (4x4's) to the bottom of each bench top, which lets you set them on the floor, or stack them on top of each other, or store them in cantilevered racks, while still being able to pick them up with a forklift (which is how we do practically everything in the Lab).

cleats allow forklift to drop top right onto frame
The frame is constructed easily from standard 4x4 and 2x8 lumber -- it takes about 20 minutes to make one. Outside dimensions are 32" x 32" x 60".

rails are lowered 3-1/2" for cleats and fork blades
The forklift can pick up the top from anywhere, since it rests 3-1/2" off the floor because of the two cleats on the bottom. The tops can also easily be carried/stacked by two people, and the cleats provide room for your fingers, too (especially when it's on the floor--it's difficult to pick up a door that's flat on a smooth floor).

angled cleats automatically center the top as it's lowered, even if it's a couple inches off center

tables are strong, smooth, and the tops are easily switched
We have a lot of bench tops in various places, with "in progress" projects. Sometimes you need to leave one project in suspended animation while you work on another. With this system you can simply file the whole bench top, with all the project parts and even tools, if you want (though we always put tools away). We have several cantilever racks for project storage, some 12' up in the air, on the mezzanine level. It's a very handy system.

a few projects 12ft up above floor level, on cantilever racks