January 30th, 2012
Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine and a much less heralded 2008 film Flash of Genius both raised the question of the fraught relationship between the hard work of invention and the uncertain financial rewards for inventors.
Flash of Genius tells the story of Robert Kearns, a Detroit engineering professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, patented it, negotiated with Ford about manufacturing it for their cars, and then discovered that Ford stole the technology. Ford installed it in the early Seventies, and the invention was soon copied by the rest of the industry. From that point on, Kearns decided his life’s work would be suing the automobile manufacturers, sometimes with counsel, sometimes representing himself, sometimes doing all his own research, and sometimes having help from his children. Kearns was ultimately successful, winning a total of $ 40 million from Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement.
Being an individual plaintiff in civil litigation against a large institution with deep pockets is deeply frustrating, as the institution’s standard practice is to stall and take advantage of the law’s complexity. Did Kearns waste the last three decades of his life in litigation? Would have been happier, if not wealthier, if he kept inventing? Kearns, however, saw himself as a champion of individual inventors fighting for just compensation from the large corporations that need their inventions. (Personal disclosure: I was part of the Heather Robertson vs. Thomson Corp. class action that won compensation for freelance authors for the republication of their articles in electronic databases, a fight similar to Kearns’s.) For Kearns, it WAS all about the money.
The Soul of a New Machine tells the story of a group of young programmers and engineers that developed a late Seventies leading edge minicomputer, Data General’s Eagle project. Kidder explained the technology, got close to the individuals on the team, and presented the process by which they built the computer. From “signing on,” agreeing to work virtually around the clock without overtime pay or stock options, to the ultimate launch of the computer, it emphatically was not about the money.
In his conclusion, Kidder writes:
… a group of engineers got excited about building a computer… What’s more, they did the work, both with uncommon spirit and for reasons that, in a most frankly commercial setting, seemed remarkably pure. (p. 272)
The book’s most-quoted passage is:
… yet more than two dozen people worked on it overtime, without any real hope of material rewards for a year and a half, and afterwards most of them felt glad. That happened largely because [project manager Tom] West and other managers gave them enough freedom to invent, while at the same time guiding them toward success.” (p. 275)
What strikes me re-reading the book thirty years later is that for West’s group, building the computer became an end in itself. The computer ultimately was successful and it added considerably to Data General’s bottom line, but the team shared little of the rewards. Ironically, they were working at the same time that Gates, Allen, and Ballmer were launching Microsoft and Jobs and Wozniak were launching Apple. What some people then grasped more clearly than others was that the personal computer industry would create untold wealth, and those who realized it first grasped the most wealth. (That is the story told in Pirates of Silicon Valley, which I discussed in my post of last Dec. 17.)
Gates and Jobs and their partners worked just as hard as Tom West’s two groups – the software designers who called themselves the Micro-kids and the engineers who called themselves the Hardy Boys – but they also had a clearer vision of how their creativity could be lead to huge financial rewards. It turned out to be the micro-computer, not the mini-computer, that would become the most profitable market segment.
By the dot-com boom a little more than a decade after the Soul of a New Machine saga, the IT industry was full of people who were in it primarily for the money, and who had no interest in the beauty of brilliant software writing or technical design. But that’s another story.
Both of the texts appeal to me, but in different ways. Flash of Genius was not a box-office or critical success, primarily because it was a complicated courtroom battle in which the intended heroic protagonist was a quirky and difficult man. Its great virtue, however, is that it made an honest effort to portray the creative process, something that is rarely done in film. The movie managed to show us how an inventor thought in terms of a metaphor (intermittent wipers working like the blink of an eye), how that inventor was obsessed with solving his intellectual problem, how the inventor designed his solution using well-known electronic components (capacitors, transistors, and resistors), and how he kept trying different combinations of the components until one clicked. In the courtroom battle, Kearns made the point about originality cross-examining one of Ford’s expert witnesses, asking whether there was any word in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities that would not be found in a standard dictionary.
Kidder’s book is a model of clarity in defining and discussing assembler language, machine language, chip design, and showing how the minicomputer combined all these complicated elements. What appealed to me more, however, was Kidder’s role as first-person narrator and participant in the story. After gaining access, Kidder became so closely identified with the design team that he could not portray himself as a silent and unseen observer. Indeed, Kidder’s mere presence was part of manager Tom West’s way of motivating his team:
[West] welcomed a journalist to observe his team, and how it did delight him when one of his so-called kids remarked to me, “What we’re doing must be important if there’s a writer covering it.” (p. 275).
Kidder came to know the team member’s so well not only by watching them at work, but by relaxing with them. The portraits of the team members, for example on a sailing trip with West, are detailed and sympathetic. So it was entirely fitting for Kidder to write in the first person, providing observations of the process and of the characters in his own voice on the basis of his own experience. This intimacy makes it a rewarding experience to reread The Soul of a New Machine three decades after its original publication.
To return to the title, when someone in investment banking says it’s not about the money, recent experience has shown it most definitely is about the money. With technology, it’s not so obvious. Sometimes it actually wasn’t about the money. Regardless, the relationship between creativity and monetary reward continues to perplex and fascinate.