Back in 1961, Norris--who this week received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention--read an article in an electronics magazine about a razor with no blade.
"It ionized your whiskers," he recalled. The article turned out to be an April Fools' joke, but at the bottom there was a note stating that the magazine would give $200 to someone who came up with an article for next year.
Prepping for the 1962 contest, Norris wrote about a tone arm for a record player that moved across the record in a straight line, rather than in an arc.
"Literally as I was licking the envelope, I decided to call a hi-fi store," he recalled. The store loved it. He called some more. Instead of sending the article, he decided to build the turntable. Years later, he commercialized it and sold to a stereo manufacturer for $20,000.
Since then, he's devised a lot of things--an artificial hip, an earpiece for cell phones, a device that became a precursor to the sonogram. Most came out of his American Technology Corp. (ATC). He also co-founded AirScooter, which makes personal helicopters.
Just as important, he embodies the gung-ho optimism associated with his profession. From Thomas Edison to Billy Mays (that hairy guy who sells Oxy Clean on cable channels), inventors seem far more charged up on enthusiasm than the average person.
Keeping that enthusiasm alive isn't easy. For one thing, everyone assumes you're crazy. Costs are high, too. When Norris started, filing a patent might cost about $800. Now it can run $8,000 to $10,000.
"Lawyers have priced it beyond the reach of the average guy," he explained, adding that "if you get rid of all patents, you cripple the motivation to create."
Since the 1920s, big companies and large universities have begun to absorb more of the field, and these institutions often don't welcome independents, preferring instead to trust those from the Ph.D. circuit. Tinkering, though, is a tough habit to give up.
"There is no inventor without a garage," Norris said.
The next invention Norwood hopes to make big is HyperSonic Sound, or HSS, a machine that lets you precisely control the placement of sound.
The system consists of a small box that converts conventional sound recordings into electric signals. The signals are then fed into a device that looks like a crepe pan. The device, which
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time share resort, among other occupations.
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