Scientist's invention was let go for a song

Consumers will spend billions this holiday season on CDs, DVDs and machines to record and play the ubiquitous silver discs.

But the inventor of the underlying technology won't make a cent.

Jim Russell, a retired scientist in Bellevue, can only shrug, shake his head and tell his story.

"What I invented was the optical-digital data-storage technology — the fundamental technology behind the whole thing," he said.

Russell's tale is one that resonates in a technology industry where there's constant tension between sharing and protecting ideas, and where inventors are often eclipsed by investors, marketers and manufacturers.

Sony and Philips get credit for developing the compact disc in the early 1980s. But they licensed technology that Russell developed 20 years earlier in the Tri-Cities.

"He, in my opinion, is really the father of the technology; he had the original ideas for optical-digital recording and I feel is the original inventor of the basic concepts that made it all come into being," said Marv Erickson, senior program manager at Battelle's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

An inveterate tinkerer who grew up fixing appliances and radios after school in Bremerton, Russell studied physics at Reed College in Portland. He went on to program early computers and develop a system for controlling nuclear reactors at Hanford.

Russell, 73, worked first for General Electric and then Battelle when it took over the Richland facility in 1965.

Battelle recognized Russell's creativity and gave him time and a laboratory to develop his ideas, including a far-out system that would use a laser to read digitized music.

In hindsight, Battelle let Russell's patents go for a song. It licensed them to a venture capitalist who formed a public company in 1980 to market the technology.

That company ran out of money in 1985, and the patents went to a startup in Toronto, which hired Russell.

It sued Sony, Philips and music publishers for licensing fees and royalties on CD technology, but Russell was let go before settlements were reached, and he never got a share.

Still at work in basement

Today, Russell does consulting from a lab in the basement of his Bellevue home to keep in the game and supplement a modest pension from Battelle.

A wooden box on a shelf contains a set of faintly scored glass plates, each about the size of a 3- by 5-inch notecard. They are precursors of the DVD; each contains a digital recording of a television show taken off the air in 1974 to prove that his idea for optical digital recording worked.

The plates, a collection of paperwork and a small trophy from Battelle are basically all he has to show for his work on a technology that changed how the world buys and stores music, movies and software.

"I didn't really expect I was going to make a lot of money, because I recognized early on it was going to take a big company to put this all together and get it out on the market, because it was a revolutionary thing," Russell said, "and you don't just do revolutionary things of that order without enormous support and that I was going to lose my position no matter what.

"That's OK, but a little royalty I kind of expected. I didn't expect to get nothing."

Battelle did a little better. The research institution, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, made more than $1 million from the patents, but not a lot more.

Erickson, who worked across the hall from Russell when he developed the technology, said Russell had supporters, but some in the organization didn't recognize the technology's potential.

Now it's doing a more thorough job of reviewing the commercial prospects of every invention, he said.

"It's the twists and turns of the business aspect of it that dictate the final outcome as much as the technology development," Erickson said.

Another challenge for inventors is overcoming the status quo, said Lambertus Hesselink, a Stanford engineering professor developing a method of storing data in holograms that could eventually displace the digital discs.

"No one really knows how this is going to play out, but there is always a tendency to favor the current technology over the new ones, so some individual or a company has to take a lot of reach to go beyond the currently accepted," he said.

For inventors, it's about more than commercial success anyway, Hesselink said: "You do it because you have a love for it."

Money was not Russell's motivation.

A lifelong music fan, he was looking for a way to make records that wouldn't wear out from being played over and over again.

"My original reason was I wanted better sound," he said, "but having come to this concept, the whole inductive leap and the whole system, I immediately realized this was good for storing any kind of information — sound information, movies, data, databases, software, anything that you could think of that can be digitized."

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, music aficionados went to extreme lengths to get high-quality sound from records. Russell was the sort who used cactus needles on his record player; they had to be hand-sharpened after each use, but the sound was better and they wouldn't wear out albums as fast as metal needles.

Russell thought a laser would work even better. Digital recordings could be perfect, and their sound wouldn't deteriorate from repeated use.

If passion for music was one ingredient, another was Russell's familiarity with early computers and other cutting-edge hardware.

One machine he had access to at Battelle was a process computer that could translate data from analog to digital format. It was used for controlling experiments and was hooked up to devices such as oscilloscopes.

Russell thought it could be used for music, and he connected it to a portable radio.

Then he had to figure out a precise optical device for reading microscopic data that had been written onto a photosensitive medium.

A key concept, and the most valuable of his 51 patents, was a method of synchronizing the data to create more than just a stream of ones and zeros.

Russell came up with the idea of embedding a special code in the data — it appears to be a long dash among the dots and dashes — that the device looks for and uses to synchronize the data.

Russell developed most of this in 1965. The concept was divided into components, a patent plan was laid out and the first filing was made.

Then in 1966, the funding stopped.

"It isn't clear what the problem was," Russell said. "I think there was some feeling amongst the moneybags that it probably wouldn't work, [or] if it did work there's no advantage, no value in optical records. What would you use it for, and would people want it and, anyway, if it was any good, IBM would have already invented it."

Idea finds a supporter

Russell didn't give up, though, and kept pushing his concept.

Battelle pitched the concept to potential investors. In 1972, a New York venture capitalist, Eli Jacobs, sponsored the research.

Jacobs asked Russell what would be the hardest thing for his invention to record and play back. The answer was television, because it required high-performance and high-density recordings, and it had to be inexpensive, Russell said.

"So he decided, 'We'll go for that,' " Russell recalled. " 'If we can't get there, at least we'll know where you are in the state of the art.' "

By 1974, Russell was able to record shows onto glass plates.

Publicity on the research began and companies were invited to license it.

Russell said Sony and Philips were among those that sent people to Richland to see the work that year, but neither agreed to buy a license.

In 1980, Jacobs started Digital Recording, a public company in Salt Lake City, to develop an audio player and storage media.

Simultaneously, Philips and Sony were working on a way to record digital video and audio. In 1977, a consortium was formed to develop a standard digital audio disc, and in 1982 the companies launched their CD technology.

Russell was convinced Sony and Philips were infringing on his patents, but Digital Recording's patent lawyer disagreed. The company ran out of money in 1985. Its assets were purchased by a Toronto startup called Optical Recording Corp., or ORC.

The company aggressively pursued the patent suits and eventually won royalty agreements with Sony and Philips.

A Philips spokeswoman acknowledged the company's settlement with ORC but said the main Philips inventor of CD audio was Piet Kramer, head of the company's optical research group.

"As far as we know, ORC wanted to use the technology for medical appliances and not for CD audio," Caroline Kamerbeek said via e-mail.

"Philips and ORC settled the case by concluding a [one-time] licensing agreement. Philips had and has many essential patents in the field of optical recording itself."

Kamerbeek also noted that Philips and Sony in turn shared the technology through licensing programs. That "enabled many companies to enter into this new, promising market," she said. "All these companies together made this new line of products to a real success."

Potential underestimated

Philips and Sony also underestimated the invention's potential. They hoped to sell 10 million CDs in 1985, but instead sold 59 million. By 2002, yearly sales were more than 8 billion.

ORC also won more than $30 million from Time Warner in a suit that gave ORC 6 cents for every CD the company manufactured from 1986 until the patents expired in 1991.

Russell's patents had expired by the time DVDs, which use similar technology, came out in the mid-1990s.

Now more than 70 percent of U.S. homes have DVD players, and 26 million more players — along with 35 million new CD players — are expected to be sold in 2004, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Russell's only payment is the gratitude of friends and others who know his story.

"I think of him every time I slip a CD into my car or at home, or I drop a DVD in to watch a movie," said Battelle's Erickson.

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Getting it on disc

Jim Russell's optical-digital recording work:

1953: Russell joins General Electric as a physicist at Hanford, where he developed several instrumentation systems, the first computerized-control system for a nuclear reactor and the first electron-beam welder.

1965: Joins Battelle at Richland and begins developing the first of three optical data-storage technologies.

1966: The first of a series of 25 patents is filed.

1973: Designs and builds first prototype.

1974: Technology demonstrated to potential licensees, including Sony and Philips.

1979: Sony and Philips begin joint development of digital audio disc.

1980: Digital Recording established to develop technology.

1982: Sony begins CD production.

1985: Digital Recording goes out of business; assets sold to Optical Recording in Toronto, which hires Russell.

1987: Russell's contract with Optical Recording ends; he becomes independent consultant and inventor.

1988: Optical Recording settles patent case with Sony and Philips.

2004: More than 35 million CD players and 25 million DVD players sold.

Sources: Jim Russell, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Battelle), Sony, Consumer Electronics Association