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Stephen Kurtin: focus on a serial inventor

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You may have heard of the “Renaissance Man,” a person with profound knowledge and expertise in a variety of different fields. Correspondingly, Dr. Stephen Kurtin could be called a “Renaissance Inventor.”

If you are of a certain age, you may remember the term “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get). This refers to computing+display technology which solved an important problem.  Prior attempts to computerize document production included, at most, one line of text display.   In the early 1970’s Kurtin et al invented the Videotype, the first electronic word processor.   It included not only a full page video display, but also WYSIWYG, thereby launching (long before PCs) the word processing revolution.  Not stopping there, Kurtin went on to create inventions in a many other fields, resulting in over 45 U.S. patents. These include surround sound, LaserJet font cartridges offering scalable fonts, electronic medical thermometry, and even adjustable focus glasses.

As part of our distinguished speaker series we were honored to have Dr. Kurtin drop by Intertrust to discuss his role [1969] in getting to the truth behind the apparent discovery of polymeric water (“polywater”).  During his visit, we were able to sit down with Kurtin for a brief conversation.

Intertrust: Why do you work across a many fields?  Why not specialize?

Kurtin:  It can be difficult to find really good problems, particularly since I prefer to work on challenges that lie in between established disciplines.  I can’t design a better integrated circuit than Intel, nor a better laser printer than HP, but I have developed technology to transfer a laser-printed address onto an envelope.

Q: Why did you decide to work as an inventor?

A: I started Lexitron Corporation right out of graduate school, and took the company public in 1972. Our Videotype word processor was the first to offer a full page text display, and also the first to offer WSYWIG.  It was a stunning advance, and rapidly achieved market traction.  We began with only three employees, and it was fun; as the company grew past 75 people it was still fun.  As the team rapidly expanded to over 600 people, management and political issues began to dilute my focus. We sold the company in 1976. I was happy to return to working as an inventor, developing new technology and then licensing it to established companies.

Q: Why go into eyeglasses?

A: I became 45 and therefore presbyopic.  To my surprise there weren’t any really good solutions, even though the problem had previously been addressed by many others.

Our resulting ‘Superfocus’ eyeglasses were well received. They were featured in the New York Times, won the coveted Wall Street Journal ‘Technology Innovation Award’, and also many other accolades.  NASA even selected Superfocus for use by the astronauts on the International Space Station.  Ultimately, despite rapidly increasing sales, we could not finance the company’s growth.  There are over 10,000 users out there, and a steady stream of requests from would-be wearers. Perhaps the technology will rise again.

Q: What advice would you give to a young technologist who wanted to follow his passion?

A: Finding a good problem is fun; solving it is even more fun.  My approach is to look for problems others don’t see, and solve them cleanly.

Here’s an inspirational historical example:  Many large trucks have multiple wheels per axel.  If the tire on an inside wheel blows out, there is no effect on drivability …and hence the driver isn’t aware of the blowout.  More importantly, a blowout leads to the neighboring tire overheating, and also blowing out. Not good.  Recognizing the problem, many decades ago a professor at Caltech came up with a wonderful, and wonderfully simple, invention: in essence, hanging a thermocouple between each pair of tires so the driver can be notified when any location between a pair of tires begins heating up.  Simple, clean, effective.


Photo Caption: Dr. Stephen Kurtin wearing his signature invention, the adjustable focus glasses