Inventor Waits 43 Years for Another Chance to Shock TechSusan Decker and Ian King
Forty-three years is too long even for Gilbert P. Hyatt, the dogged inventor who once shocked the computer industry and got rich.
Hyatt said he’s been waiting that long for a U.S. ruling on whether his electronic signal to control machinery should be granted a patent. The patent-approval process takes 28.3 months on average. His idea for liquid crystal displays? That’s been sitting in the Patent and Trademark Office for 35 years.
The Las Vegas-based inventor, who turns 76 in March, filed a lawsuit in January demanding action on what may be the oldest pending U.S. patent applications. Hyatt attributes some of the delay to retribution for sometimes making the agency look bad during years of disputes.
“It’s totally unconscionable,” said Brad Wright, a patent lawyer with Banner & Witcoff in Washington who specializes in computer-related applications and isn’t involved in Hyatt’s case. “The patent office doesn’t want to be embarrassed that they might issue a broad patent that would have a sweeping impact on the technology sector. Rather than be embarrassed, they’re just bottling it up.”
No one is able to put a price tag on what licensing those two patents would cost technology companies. Even Hyatt said he’s not sure whether he would replicate the shock of getting a patent in 1990 on a “single chip integrated circuit computer architecture,” a ruling that effectively gave him a financial claim to most microprocessors, the digital backbone of every personal computer in the world.
What is certain is that Hyatt isn’t some gadfly in a garden shed. He’s probably made more than $150 million from a deal with Royal Philips NV, the Dutch electronics maker, to license 23 of his patents, including the 1990 one. Intel Corp. co-founder Robert Noyce invested in Hyatt’s first company in the 1960s, according to Hyatt.
“These were fundamental technologies and even though the industry has grown tremendously, they are based on those fundamental technologies,” Hyatt, who still works in his private lab each day, said in a telephone interview. “I suspect that my ideas are still novel, even to this day.”
The patent office, which issued 302,948 patents last year and receives more than 500,000 new requests annually, won’t say what’s in Hyatt’s two pending applications.
Because the filings are so old, they fall under a law that keeps them confidential, said Patrick Ross, a PTO spokesman. That means the office can’t discuss them or even say how many pending patent applications predate a 1995 change in the law, Ross said.
All Hyatt would say is that he is fighting to get acknowledgment for his work on what he calls “square wave machine control.”
It took Hyatt 20 years to get his 1990 microprocessor patent. He filed the application around the same period as the two still pending.
Reaction at the time was swift. Texas Instruments, the world’s largest analog-chip maker, argued to the patent office that Hyatt was claiming credit for one of the company’s inventions. After five years, the agency canceled part of the patent while allowing other aspects of it to remain.
Still, the patent became part of Hyatt’s licensing deal with Philips, which has generated more than $350 million. Philips deducted its costs and then split the proceeds 50-50, meaning Hyatt probably got more than $150 million.
Hyatt, who speaks softly in conversations, doesn’t hesitate to fight. When California, where he once lived, claimed he owed $51 million in back taxes and penalties, he shot back with a lawsuit accusing state officials of harassing him and invasion of privacy. He won a record $388 million award that’s currently being reviewed by Nevada’s Supreme Court.
He has taken the patent office to court more than 10 times to force the agency to reconsider rejections of some of his applications. He even won a case at the Supreme Court in 2012 over what type of evidence can be presented in district court.
“I got a whole bunch of cases referred back to the patent office telling them to do it right,” said Hyatt. “I don’t think they want to let it get to the board of appeals and therefore they keep running me around from examination to appeal, reopening prosecutions, examining, forcing me to appeal again and round and round.”
In the January lawsuit, Hyatt alleges he was told by a PTO unit director that the agency’s unofficial policy in dealing with him is to give him the runaround to avoid making a decision he could appeal. He said that may be why the patent office hasn’t granted him a patent since 1997.
Ross, the PTO spokesman, wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 3 in a U.S. district court in Las Vegas.
Hyatt, the son of a Russian emigrant and civil engineer, spent the early part of his career working for aerospace companies. He said he got his ideas for a business while at Teledyne Technologies Inc. in the 1960s.
He set up Micro Computer Inc. in 1968 to implement his ideas, with Noyce, who would co-found Intel that same year, as one of his investors.
“Dr. Noyce invested in my company personally because, from his standpoint, he thought it had merit,” Hyatt said. “I was happy to get him because I thought Intel would build the chips.”
Noyce, who died in 1990, often invested in Silicon Valley startups, said Thomas Misa, director of the Charles Babbage Institute Center for the History of Information Technology in Minneapolis, who likened it to someone backing a neighbor’s ideas. Investing with Hyatt would have been consistent with his interests, he said.
“Bob Noyce was investor in everything,” Misa said. “When he died, his family found a shoe box of promissory notes. He was very keen on building the electronics industry.”
Leslie Berlin, Noyce’s biographer, and technology historian Ross Bassett, a professor at North Carolina State University in the city of Raleigh, said they couldn’t find records showing Noyce invested with Hyatt, while agreeing with Misa’s comments.
Hyatt, who describes himself as “at heart a frugal inventor,” said it’s clear he will never be placed in Silicon Valley’s pantheon of founding fathers, even with his 1990 patent. He just wants a decision -- either give him a patent, he said, or a final rejection that he can appeal to a U.S. court.
While some of Hyatt’s patents predate or are contemporary with those granted to executives at Intel and Texas Instruments Inc., those companies made products that changed the world, Bassett said.
“I respect Gilbert Hyatt’s work -- the process of engineering is difficult,” Bassett said in a telephone interview. “But innovations are more than ideas. The broader context matters. If Gilbert Hyatt had never existed, I believe the microprocessor would have developed in the same way that it did.”