If necessity is the mother of invention, some of her children may be orphans.
Although I was at my desk at 9:04, my body was still on Japan time. So when the first call of the morning came in, I could be excused for picking it up instead of letting my secretary field it.
I guess I was out of practice after a week on the road. The high stack of correspondence, the stack of phone messages next to it, my appointment book (open to today's page, which was already nearly full) -- these all encouraged me to find something else to do. Plus, I knew a hundred or so e-mail messages were waiting as soon as I turned on my computer. I suppose my sorry circadian state could also explain why, when the unfamiliar, heavily accented voice began its rapid-fire assault, I didn't just kiss him off and get on with the morning. I was looking forward to meeting my wife and daughter for lunch, which would be the first real time I'd spent with them since returning last night.
"I have for you, Mr. Bastin, the opportunity of your lifetime," said the voice. Without giving me a chance to respond, it went on. "You wonder why you are presented this. I will tell you. It is because I have heard of you as an honest man. I have need of honest man."
It was a Slavic accent, probably Russian, spoken very rapidly. I should have hung up. "Uh ," I managed. "Who am I speaking to?"
"Oh, I am so sorry. I am Radik Sergeivich Danilov. I am represent Dr. Mikhail Sergeivich Danilov, the computer scientist, who is also my brother. You are familiar with Dr. Danilov and his work, is this not true?"
His R's were so trilled and the consonants so hard that it seemed to take several seconds to parse his words. "No, actually, I'm not."
"You are not? But people said you are knowledgeable in computers. It is hard to believe that you do not know of my brother."
"I specialize in certain facets of computer technology, but I'm afraid I haven't kept up with Russian science."
"Oh, Mr. Bastin, that is to your loss. Although the problems in recent years have made work in computer science in Russia very difficult, very difficult indeed, some individuals have been able, with great difficulty and even some personal danger, they have been able to make significant breakthrough. For example, in area of complexity theory, which is not my brother's area...."
This fellow was becoming annoying. I held the receiver between my shoulder and neck, half-listening as I started sorting through letters. Julie, my secretary, had already set the prospectuses, journals, magazines and unsolicited inquiries to one side. A thick manila envelope from the patent attorney's office had to be a search, maybe on that new sputtering idea from Sublimation Systems. I glanced at a schedule of lectures on advances in multiprocessing to be held at Stanford. Another thick envelope --
"Mr. Bastin? Do you agree?"
"Uh, yes, of course," I replied, although I couldn't remember what I was agreeing to.
"So if one person would combine these different technologies, which most persons say could not be done, nonetheless one person would find -- what is your word? -- organism, no, synergism, and the most significant breakthrough. Don't you agree?"
"So, I am available soon to show you our CPU. Perhaps this evening?"
"I'm so sorry. I mean to say this afternoon."
"Uh, I'm afraid that's not possible."
"Of course. You are busy man. Tomorrow then. Is 8 a.m. acceptable?"
"Listen, why don't you call my secretary and let her arrange it, okay?"
"Yes, certainly, I understand. I will do that now. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Bastin."
"Certainly. Of course." Oh jeez, I was starting to imitate him.
"Good-bye, Mr. Bastin."
I was left holding the dead receiver, wondering what I had agreed to do and how this man had maneuvered me into meeting with him on something -- a "CPU" -- that he may or may not have described.
He was in the lobby when I came in Thursday morning. It was obvious, even though I'd never seen him before or received a description. Eastern European looks, balding, holding a brown paper bag on his lap, wearing a suit like my grandfather's. Who else could it be?
He recognized me and jumped up to greet me. "Mr. Bastin, so nice to meet you!"
"Nice to meet you, too." I didn't use his name because I'd temporarily blanked it, which I knew was a personal sign that I didn't want to talk to him. How had I gotten myself into this? He followed me toward the door to my office.
"Please, Mr., um, Danilov," I read from the guest badge the receptionist had stuck on his lapel. "Allow me a few moments to begin my day."
"Of course," he answered with inappropriate enthusiasm and quickly returned to his seat.
One Thursday each month I have "open house," which means I'm willing to meet individuals with ideas who normally wouldn't get to see me. I started my career as a patent lawyer and still have a soft spot for entrepreneur-inventors. The hit rate with them is low, but good enough that I can justify it to the other partners at the firm.
I settled in, grabbed some coffee and reviewed my morning schedule with Julie.
"There's a Mr. Danilov and a Mr. Kelly."
I decided to see Kelly first, just to show Danilov who was boss. I was annoyed with him for having destroyed, at least temporarily, the good mood my wife had put me in -- this morning, she'd told me our doctor had confirmed she was pregnant with our second child.
Mr. Kelly appeared to be in his mid-thirties, fair-skinned, growing a bit about the waist. I sized him up as an engineer-with-great-idea -- one of my standard types. His résumé confirmed my appraisal. The too-fancy business card said he was president of Preservation Industries, which I thought at first must be some kind of coffin manufacturer.
"We make personal time capsules," he explained, showing me a not-very-fancy brochure. Basically, the company made a line of stainless steel canisters of various shapes and sizes, all with hermetic seals, EMI gaskets, keyed latches, desiccant pouches, and plumbing for flushing with inert gas. They touted the cans as ideal for preserving documents, artworks, antiques, keepsakes, and so on.
"We forgot to say in the brochure, but we nickel-plate the inside."
"You nickel-plate stainless?"
"It improves the magnetic barrier." This fellow was a real engineer.
A new market they were aiming for, he went on to say, was the large and rapidly-growing home video market. People were taking videos of family events that they would want to keep for many years, but the videotape is subject to deterioration from pollution, stray electromagnetic fields, abuse, and so on. He presented a long list of tests he and his partner had done to show how well his "PTC" shielded those precious tapes of Johnny's first birthday and the time Janie spit up on Uncle Henry.
"Looks expensive," I said.
"That's why we need money. We want to tool the big parts and set up a production line. We also need to get a good marketing person and start national distribution."
"Still, most people don't keep bottles of pressurized inert gas around the house."
He produced a small metal container like a CO2 cartridge, but painted green. "Argon. We'll sell these too. It will give us some aftermarket revenue."
I was skeptical and told him so. Stuff for the home market has to be dirt cheap to manufacture due to distribution and marketing costs, and because any success attracts imitators. I promised I'd look into how his PTC's would work in the high-end videophile market. It brought him down, but I couldn't lie to him. And with all the latches and valves, the devices were much too complicated -- home stuff also has to be dirt simple.
Then I had Julie fetch Danilov.
He swept in and shook my hand as I sat, not giving me a chance to stand. "It is so good to be here! So many of your colleagues have refused to see. I thought perhaps was not as we in my country were told. But to be here before you -- "
"Please, Mr. Danilov."
"You may call me Radik. That is what my friends -- "
"Please, Mr. Danilov!"
He quieted, briefly I was sure. "We don't have much time. I have an important meeting at ten," I lied. Noticing the bag, I said, "Show me what you have."
"Yes, yes, of course, my apologies, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize..."
He went on and on as he opened the bag and placed an object on the desk. It was a weird contraption, a conglomeration only an inventor could love, and proof that artists really did know what they were doing when they put pieces of junk together. At one end was an SLR camera, a fancy Japanese one with electronic control that reminded me of my recent walk through Akihabara. But the camera had been disemboweled and lobotomized: the back had been replaced by an aluminum extrusion maybe ten inches long, crudely RTV'd to the camera body. The top of the camera had been cut open to allow a bundle of high-gauge wire to enter. At the other end of the extrusion was a molded plastic box, also glued, that I eventually identified as some kind of battery holder. Set into a cover screwed on the extrusion were various electrical connectors and a grillwork.
"Tell me what this does."
"It does anything you want." That was not the answer I was looking for. I chalked it up to language difficulties.
"What is its purpose?"
"Its purpose is to help you do things."
"Whatever you tell it."
"Give me an example."
He pressed something at the rear of the object, then picked it up and turned it so the camera lens faced me. "What do you see?" he asked.
Irritated almost to rudeness, I was about to say something about seeing a glued-together piece of junk when the camera clicked.
"I see a man."
It was not Danilov's voice, though it had a similar accent.
"Describe man," said Danilov.
"He wears a blue suit and multicolored tie. He is a Caucasian male. He has a high forehead and brown eyes. He is -- "
"Shut up." From Danilov.
So the voice was coming from the device. I tried to remember how small a current voice-recognition system could be -- assuming this wasn't a hoax. With a vision system built in. And integrated. The device before me had to be the smallest one of its kind, even if another such system existed. It had to be a hoax. It would need some kind of advanced AI. How had this twit faked it so well?
The camera clicked again.
"How did you manage this?" I asked, my voice tighter than I intended. I didn't like having my time wasted, but I was intrigued by one of the slickest tricks I'd ever seen.
"The man shows anger," came from the box. Then it clicked again.
Ventriloquism. Of course. So simple, when I had been searching for a high-tech answer. I had to admire the man's craftiness. And the camera was set to snap at some interval, or maybe random intervals.
"The man smiles." Another click.
I paused. Danilov hadn't opened his mouth -- in fact, he had walked over to my bookcase and was inspecting the titles.
"The man does not smile." Click.
A two-way radio link sending stills, and a confederate at the other end playing robot? "A very slick hoax," I said.
Danilov returned to the desk, instantly angry. "Hoax? Hoax! You call me a liar?"
"Happens quite often in my business." I explained my hypothesis of how he did it.
He took a Swiss Army knife from a pocket and used it to unscrew the object's cover. Inside was anything but what I had expected. Instead of crammed circuit boards I saw rows of small lenses, interposed with other, less identifiable but obviously optical, components. The only electronics were on a small board attached to the cover, next to a speaker.
No room for a false bottom.
"I'm sorry," was all I could get out. This was unquestionably a breakthrough of some kind. Even if it were a trick, to do it optically was an astounding achievement. "Tell me how this works."
"I cannot tell you very much. This is brother's work. He is genius, don't you think?"
"He may be," I had to admit.
"Device is a synergistic combination, my brother tells me, of optical computer and neural network. Is systolic array. Lenses are Fourier transformers, of course. These are spatial light modulators. You are familiar with such devices?"
"What part of computers are you expert in?" The tone was almost accusatory.
"Microprocessors, mass storage components."
"All soon obsolete," he stated, waving his hand as if to brush them all into a waste basket. "CPU is based on Vander-Lugt correlator, but more sophisticated."
"Can you estimate its specmarks?"
"Please, Mr. Bastin! No specmarks, no MIPS, none of that anymore is relevant! How many specmarks is a horse? This is new horse." He closed the cover. "CPU," he said.
He spoke to it in Russian. It replied in Russian. I thought I heard my name. A bilingual computer? Could this thing really translate human language?
"Good morning, Mr. Bastin."
"Uh, good morning," I replied to the CPU.
"It is very nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you. Tell me, can you translate between Russian and English?"
It said something in Russian. Danilov laughed and replied to it.
"It seems the CPU misunderstood you," came from the box. "It thinks you wanted it to translate your words to me in Russian, and will no doubt translate my words into English."
I thought for a minute as I stared at the CPU, and for once Danilov was silent. "Mr. Danilov." I straightened in my chair and folded my hands on the desktop. "What do you want from me?"
"Of course, to help us in manufacture of CPU."
I gave him my standard mini-lecture on starting a company, how it's speculative, very risky, more work than he could imagine, and so on, though he didn't look like the type that was easily scared off. But when I went on to the phase-one action items, he balked.
"Have you applied yet?" I asked him.
"Applied for what?"
"A patent on this."
"No, no. No patents. This belongs to Misha and me."
"It won't for long if you don't apply soon. Listen, how about if I sit down with you and your brother and talk things over."
"Misha does not like talk."
"Still, I would very much like to meet the man who designed this. He must be brilliant." Flattery, I thought, might oil the gears. "Wouldn't he like to show off some of the new ideas he's working on?"
"I will try."
Well, I thought as I parked in front of the small wood frame house, at least it's not a garage. The front yard was a disaster of neglect; the exterior of the house, unpainted for too many winters, looked like bare, weathered wood. Danilov met me at the door and let me in, then guided me down a hall to what he called the lab. It was dark and musty inside the house, as if they never opened a window or drew back some curtains. In passing, Danilov introduced a heavy woman as his wife, then led me to a closed bedroom door. He knocked and shouted something in Russian. The door unlocked and opened to reveal a thin, blond-haired man with a face that would have won him the part of Rasputin in any small-town theater. Without a word he let us in and immediately went back to a table where he was working.
"Misha, this is Mr. Bastin."
Misha gave me a surly glare.
"I'm glad to meet you, Misha. Your brother has told me about what you've done, and shown me one of your devices. I'm very interested in helping you out."
Misha did not respond. The two of them spoke for a few moments in their own language, which gave me a chance to look around. What used to be a small bedroom was now crammed with tables and shelves, covered with all manners of objects: computers, mechanical devices, test instruments, technical books, and boxes of parts. Behind Misha, a small machine with several lamps trained on it was doing something that made scratching sounds.
"My brother does not to speak English very well. He is shy, my brother. He has never married. Only his science -- "
"Can he show me what he's working on?" I was learning that interruption was the preferred way to have a conversation with Radik.
After more discussion Misha waved me to his side. On the table was a larger and more elaborate version of the kind of optical linkage I'd seen in the first prototype. "Is this the next generation?" I asked. He shook his head. Then I realized that the musty smell came from Misha. I had to step back.
"What my brother means is that I showed you the old generation. He is making the present generation."
"And the next?"
Radik pointed at the machine making the scratching sounds. I looked more closely at it. It was some kind of small, high-precision milling machine with a tiny glass plate on its XYZ table. Cables ran from it to a control box and then to... another of their CPUs.
"My brother says the next generation is too difficult for men to build. So he taught a CPU how to do it."
Amazing! The CPUs could build more CPUs -- better ones! "What is it working on now?"
Radik asked Misha in Russian. Misha replied in Russian, then thought a moment and said, "Optical ROM."
We left Misha and went out to the dark, small living room. I showed Radik some legal papers I wanted him to read, and a confidential disclosure agreement I had written and signed. This was strictly for their comfort. While the wife served sweet tea and cookies I talked Radik into letting Jack Stein, the best patent attorney I knew, start writing up the patent. I left on good terms after what I thought was a very successful visit.
Over the next few months the Danilov project absorbed more and more of my time. First I had to convince them that Stein wasn't going to steal their secrets. I had to have Stein give them references they could talk to, then sign a special agreement that they'd had their own lawyer -- some relative, I think -- draw up. Stuff I'd never had to do with other clients.
Stein took it all good-naturedly, saying it was because they were used to a government that took whatever it wanted if you didn't make sure you concealed it. They had to learn to trust the institutions. Incorporating was also fun, since they knew even less about business. When I explained that they would all own shares, Radik thought they were already rich. That led to more explanation about seed money, investment rounds, and IPOs.
I also managed to get one of their prototypes so I could try it out. At first they absolutely refused, no doubt afraid I'd steal it. I was at last able to convince them to part with one by saying I wanted to be their first customer and handing them ten hundred-dollar bills. A fortune to them, it got me a brand-new, second-generation Danilov CPU.
It continually astounded me. I never managed to get it to do anything useful, and as the months wore on I found myself turning it on less and less. (I was very busy on other projects, and the device seemed to have picked up the Danilovs' abrasive personalities.) But just having it around stirred my imagination. It seemed every day I had a new application for it. With the right training, I felt sure, there could be one driving every car and piloting every airplane. Every industrial plant would want several to run their production lines, maybe even accounting, purchasing, and other departments. It was a natural for phone sales, support lines, even as a receptionist. The list of possibilities went on and on.
Within a few years there could be tens of millions of these devices in use.
I admit it -- I was stoked on this technology as I'd never been with anything before. And I was also stoked on some personal news: Our new child was a boy. I imagined my son in a world based on these machines, one in which everyone could have optical computers as servants, chauffeurs and secretaries -- a world in which everyone was effectively as rich as nobility centuries ago. It was an exhilarating vision.
Finally, I put together a package I could work with. Four major patents had been submitted, Danilov Technology was born, and a prospectus was written. I called a meeting with three of the best and most knowledgeable venture people I worked with. I had picked them carefully because I knew that, in spite of its obvious potential, this was a radically new idea most VCs would not have the temerity to commit to outright. The common perception of a VC is as a banker with imagination, fueling the entrepreneurial spirit; the true situation is quite different. There's a joke in my profession that goes: What do you get when you cross a rabbit with a sheep? Answer: a venture capitalist.
To heighten the drama, instead of the thick stack of information I usually prepared, I supplied my guests only a bare summary of the Danilov device's ability -- just enough to whet their appetites. That plus individual calls and their trust in me were enough to get them to the meeting.
I placed the device in the middle of the conference table, covered with a black cloth, just to have something for them to wonder about.
Around the polished table with me sat four men, three of them among the most powerful men in the valley. To my left was Holistead of TLV: bearded, graying, impeccably dressed in a custom-tailored, European-cut suit. I'd chosen him not only because of the three funds he controlled, but because of his history. After a long career in the intelligence service, including at least a decade with NSA, he was now TLV's lead in software and artificial intelligence. He was my main man. If I could win him over, the others would follow quickly.
Next to him sat Talliucci of International Ventures. The money he controlled was even greater than Holistead's, but I knew him to be a tightfisted, very bottom-line-oriented professional. (That's why so many wealthy individuals and institutions were willing give him their dough.) He would be the toughest nut to crack, because revenues were not immediately obvious in this project. I had to sell him on the vast potential of the technology.
Last was Magler of Parker & Ames and an assistant of his named Collis. Magler liked me. I figured he would be an easy sell, especially if one of the others bought in; unfortunately, Parker & Ames was a small house that wouldn't be able to carry this project by itself.
I began by reviewing current computer and AI technology, and their promise for the future. Then I moved on to promises from the past that had not been kept, mentioning specifically machine translation of human language and real-time vision systems. Magler, sitting across from me, leaned way forward over the table, a sure sign of interest; Talliucci was writing notes, for him a sign of the same thing. Holistead leaned back, arms crossed, staring at me intently: I suspected that he knew what was coming already and was showing his skepticism.
"So, gentlemen, let me show you the answer to these problems."
With that I removed the cloth to reveal the Danilov CPU. It still didn't look like much, but these were not men easily swayed by appearances. I pressed the power switch and turned it toward Holistead.
"Talk to it," I told him.
"Talk to it?"
"It is possible to talk to me."
Holistead jumped. "What is this?"
"I am an optical neural network implementation."
He was tongue-tied at first, but soon began a series of questions whose point was to find out how well the device could understand and generate human speech. He started with elementary questions such as, "What is your function?" and moved on to open-ended requests such as, "Tell me about yourself." He held a long discussion with it to determine how well it could see and distinguish objects, investigated its knowledge of the world (and how it handled things when it didn't know something), and finally tried a plain old, "Why are you here?" (To which it answered, "I don't know.")
"Very impressive," he said when he was done. "Very impressive." Still, he was sitting again with his arms folded. Something was wrong.
Magler and his buddy slid the device to their side of the table and excitedly talked at it. I was afraid that having two people talking to it simultaneously would confuse it, but the device handled the situation well. While they talked I observed Holistead. He was frowning, almost scowling, as he watched them. He seemed deep in thought.
When the Parker & Ames pair seemed to run out of questions, I faced the CPU towards Holistead again and said, "Speak to this person in Russian." As the piece de resistance I wanted to demonstrate its ability to translate human language, and I knew that Holistead happened to be fluent in the device's other language.
It spoke to him. He spoke back. There followed a short conversation, much shorter than I'd expected. Holistead asked me, "Where did you get this?"
I began to tell him about the Danilovs and their idiosyncrasies. He stopped me.
"What was that name again?"
"Dr. Mikhail Danilov." Without a word Holistead got up and left the room. Uh oh. Suddenly it occurred to me that the Danilovs might have stolen this invention from somewhere, the KGB perhaps, maybe even the NSA. No, they seemed too genuine. Perhaps Misha had developed it at one of the secret labs.
"What's inside it?" Those were Talliucci's first words. I opened up the device and explained the components.
"So there's not much to it, is there?"
"It's remarkably simple, yes." I started to give a little prepared speech on all the wonderful possibilities the device enabled, but he interrupted me.
"I don't see very much that's proprietary."
"We've got patents on the way."
"Patents are too slow. Look at the hassle Rollerblade is going through right now. The fad will be over before the court case. Not to mention Intel and AMD. And, as we all know, patents can be got around. What kind of software does it use?"
"No software. It just learns."
"So no copyright protection, either."
This was getting discouraging. All the device's best points were being turned against it.
"I find it hard to believe there's no software," Collis challenged.
"Nonetheless, that's how it works."
"There must be some basic programming, just to get it started. A boot ROM, as it were."
"There is in this particular unit, but the Danilovs tell me it's a matter of convenience. It would learn the same things anyway, albeit there would be a delay."
"I can't believe it," he said, studying its innards.
"So there's no software, very little hardware, a few common components," Talliucci went on.
"That's correct," I answered, a little pride escaping from the modest front I was trying to keep up.
Holistead reentered the conference room.
"So there's nothing to sell," Talliucci said.
That set me back. "Well..."
"This is a common problem. You can't make money selling something someone can make in his garage. Look at how the PC manufacturers have been taking a beating lately. When I look at a new technology, I try to find the magic in it, and I don't mean what it does. I mean what it takes to make it. If it doesn't need magic to work, then you're not a magician, and if you're not a magician, no one will want to pay money for what you've got." Talliucci crossed his arms. "This looks too easy."
I was crestfallen. I wanted to argue with him, but I knew it would do no good. The best money mind in the room said it wouldn't make money.
Looking over at Holistead made me feel worse. He sat motionless, looking at the device with a thin nonsmile. There would be no help from his corner.
"There's no way this can work," said Collis.
That brought a small smile to my face. Perhaps the amazement of a technical expert could show the others, or at least Magler, what a leap into the future they were being offered. Parker & Ames wouldn't be enough, but it would be a start. There were other VCs in the valley.
"It flies in the face of all the theory I know. You can't just throw some lenses and filters into a box and expect it to do what this thing's supposed to do. No way."
"Then how does it do it?" I asked. I knew that confrontation was the wrong attitude to communicate, but I couldn't help myself.
"I don't know, but I know it can't work."
I swore silently. Collis thought it was a hoax. I became more sympathetic to Radik -- this was the sort of thing he'd been through over and over again. The whole presentation was falling apart. Why were they all turning me down?
The meeting ended quickly. Talliucci and Magler said they would consider it, but I knew nothing would come of their considerations. Holistead said not a word while the others were with us, but hung back. When we were alone he said, "I would be very careful with this if I were you, Brad. I couldn't find anything on these brothers of yours, but I wouldn't be surprised if someday someone does."
I couldn't work for the rest of the day. I forgot about lunch and desultorily nibbled at the sandwich Julie brought me late in the afternoon. How could I have been so wrong? Why couldn't they see what I saw in the Danilov device? Or, what did they see that I was blind to? My old physics teacher Professor Hart used to say if you're stuck on a problem, turn it upside down, all around, and inside out.
Hart. Yes! He was still teaching at Berkeley and might remember me. In any case, I had to talk to someone, and it might as well be him. I scooped the Danilov device into my briefcase, grabbed my coat, and told Julie to cancel my afternoon appointments as I raced for the elevator.
I had the Beamer in the commuter lane and up to 85 before I realized I was hurrying for no reason. I slowed a bit and switched to lane two, going over what I wanted to say. I thought of stories I'd heard over the years, the folk tales of technology, about the tire made of a rubber that never wore out, the auto engine that got 100 miles per gallon, how the transistor was invented before the vacuum tube -- all suppressed in one way or another by big-business interests. Previously I'd laughed at these stories as paranoid conspiracy delusions, but now I wasn't so sure. And I thought of the documented story of how GM bought all those little streetcar companies in the forties, just to put them out of business and set the mass transit industry back so far it still hasn't recovered. Buildings and industrial parks swept past on both sides of the highway, with multibillion dollar names on the sides. Semiconductors, computers, electronics, software and more, all soon gone if the Danilov CPU went on the market. It would be worse than a major earthquake -- tens of thousands of people would be out of work, causing an economic dislocation that could send the economy into a tailspin. Perhaps that's what had been in Talliucci's mind when he posed his questions.
Then I thought of my son-to-be. What kind of world would he find when he went looking for his first job?
On the Berkeley campus, I walked to Hart's building only to discover that it was in the middle of renovation. After some discussion at the library information desk, I went over to the building he'd been relocated too. The secretary for his department told me Professor Hart had used the renovation as an opportunity to take a long-overdue sabbatical and wouldn't be back for another two months.
More discouraged than ever, I wandered out into the bright sun, feeling out of place among students who seemed so young and who looked at my suit as if it were a clown costume. I almost agreed with them. I took off my tie, stuffing it into a pocket, and unbuttoned my collar. I relaxed a bit and realized how tightly wound I'd been. I needed to sit down somewhere and think.
I found my way to the student union and downstairs to a cafe with outdoor tables. As I sat with an iced coffee, I tried to list my options. The only one that made sense was to find more VCs and make the same pitch to them. But that didn't sit well for two reasons: one, they would call their colleagues -- today's audience among them -- for a second opinion and get the same negative response I'd heard today; two, it didn't seem right to me to have to make the same pitch again. It was like a farmer planting a new crop in one field and, when that crop failed, deciding to plant the same crop in the field across the road. Before I did anything else I had to understand why the first pitch had met with such a dismal response, even hostility.
Something caught my eye. No, someone. Coming towards me was a familiar figure. A small man, bald on top with short white hair, wearing a brown wool suit. A familiar brown wool suit. He saw me also, and stared at me in return.
I went over to him. "Mr. Hoffman?"
"Yes. And you are...?"
"Brad Bastin. Western Civilization."
"Of course." He looked me over. "What brings you back here? I seem to remember you went on to law school, is that right?"
"That's right. I have a consulting practice in the Valley."
"Excellent. I'm glad for you. You have a client here? One of the molecular biologists, no doubt, and you're about to make him fabulously rich?"
"I wish. No, I was looking for an old professor."
"But not me."
Hoffman had been one of my favorite teachers. He had a knack for presenting history that made it seem clear, one grand flow in time, at least while you were in his classroom. His lectures had been packed, attracting kids who weren't taking the course, and he was famous for conducting a lecture class of two hundred as if it were an intimate tutoring session, calling out questions, expecting his students to give quick answers without bothering to raise their hands, and insisting that no one take notes because by definition anyone who was writing wasn't listening. He was also the fastest chalkboard scribbler I'd ever seen. Everyone said he should do a series for PBS.
"Well -- " and then I thought, why not? "Would you want to hear a sad story?"
He glanced at me, checked his watch and sat down. "I have some time."
And so I told him about the Danilovs, their device, and the disastrous meeting. I opened my briefcase and showed him the prototype. I told him I would be glad to demonstrate it for him, but not in public. He said that wouldn't be necessary, instead questioning me closely about the three VCs' questions and comments.
"You've probably never heard of the Wampanoag, have you?"
"Are they an Indian tribe?"
"Yes, but the Wampanoag I'm thinking of was a nineteenth-century steamship." Noting my look of ignorance, he went on, "You've heard of the ironclads at least, the Monitor and the Merrimac? There was another steam-powered warship then, called the Alabama. It was a Confederate ship that sailed during the Civil War. Wasn't an ironclad, if I remember correctly, but it was fast -- did an astounding eight or ten knots and was blasting Union ships out of the water. The Navy decided something had to be done, so they ordered new ships to be designed on the Alabama idea. One of these was the Wampanoag, and it was an extraordinary piece of work."
Hoffman was slipping into his inimitable lecture mode. Even sitting down he was dynamic, waving his arms to illustrate the magnificence of the Wampanoag's lines. "The designer -- " He thought a moment. "His name won't surface. At any rate, until the Wampanoag, the way one designed a steamship was to take an existing sailing ship and shoehorn a steam engine into it. Wampanoag's designer -- ah, I hate it when I can't give someone the credit he's due -- had the novel idea that he should design the engine and drive mechanism first, then build the rest of the ship around it."
"What a concept."
"Indeed. The result was a ship that was far faster and more maneuverable than anything else afloat. It put the U.S. Navy a generation ahead in warship technology, although of course they didn't call it that back then."
"Those were simpler times."
"Don't be so certain. What grade did I give you, anyway?"
"Hmm." He studied me while scratching his cheek, as if wondering whether he should revise my grade. "Why haven't you heard about the Wampanoag?"
"Did it sink?"
"The Titanic did and you remember that ship. No, the Wampanoag performed beautifully during a year of sea trials, in weather fair and foul. It exceeded all expectations." Hoffman watched me expectantly; I felt like a student again. What was I supposed to be getting? What did it have to do with the Danilov device?
"It was suppressed? Why?"
"Very good. Yes, that's exactly what happened. The board of review rejected the ship. As to the why, they said its design was faulty, even though it had been operating for a year and its crew had testified in its favor. The board noted that the country had a surplus of wood -- this was now after the war had ended -- and that there were many craftsmen whose livelihood depended on the wooden-ship business. Therefore it would be in the best interests of the country if they continued to make ships from wood. This was fine as far as the Navy was concerned, since there were no other ironclads in existence at the time and no wars imminent. Also, the board members stated that they just didn't like the Wampanoag. One could even say they hated it. They were all sailors, and back then that meant literally sail. For them, just letting a steam engine on board was a big concession."
This was intriguing. Here was an historical case in which others had rejected an obviously superior technology. "So what did they do with the ship?"
"Condemned it as unseaworthy, probably sold it as junk. And in doing so, they set back naval technology forty years."
"Was it? Speaking as a historian, I would say the Wampanoag's problem was that while it worked technically, it failed socially. The Wampanoag represented not just a change in technology, but a change in the structure of military society. Sailors stationed above decks would have nothing to do, their officers little responsibility or influence. On the other hand, sailors and officers involved with the machinery would ascend in power -- no pun intended. You can picture how disruptive it would have been. And think of the romance of sailing! Strong, brave men climbing the rigging, hauling in the sheets, and so on. All that would be lost. They weren't just interested in winning wars. They wanted to create good sailors, sailors in their image of what a sailor should be."
"But they set back progress...."
"So what? How would life have been better?"
"Well, with a warship that question is hard to answer, since all a better weapon does is kill people better."
"How is this invention," he asked, tapping a finger on the device, "going to make life better?"
"It... well, in many ways. It could make an automobile that could drive itself. It could make highways safer."
"It could. It could also enable a new generation of very smart missiles. Missiles cheap enough, if what you told me is true, that any small terrorist group could put together any number of nasty weapons."
"You could make a similar argument against any technology."
"Exactly. There are very few polio vaccines in history, and, thank God, very few atom bombs." Hoffman paused a moment, fingers scratching chin and eyes turned away, a pose I recalled from his class. He was thinking. "But that's not what's really going on. Whether or not an invention is worthy, whether it really constitutes progress, is not the point. It's a free market. People choose what they want. They buy unreliable cars because they're prestigious, they elect politicians they know are lying to them, they eat food they know is bad for them. The world does what it wants to do. Your idea of progress may be right, but it's also irrelevant, or at least not of paramount importance. Perhaps the time..."
He got up. "I have a late class," he said. "Your device is fascinating. Honestly, I hope you succeed with it, although I don't think that I would want to buy one." He shook my hand. "It was a pleasure seeing you again, Mr. Bastin. Drop by my office if you'd like to talk." And he was gone.
I sat a long time at the table, going over what he'd said and what had happened today. At last the sun sank behind the auditorium and the chill bay air began to penetrate my jacket. I drove home, for once not caring about being stuck in traffic, because I could think anywhere.
The next day I called up Preservation Industries and ordered a custom capsule. Mr. Kelly was pleased, thinking I wanted a sample to show around. He offered to give me one from stock, but I insisted on my dimensions and on paying for it. Then I called Radik and told him that I had not been able to interest anyone in the device. He did not take the news well, and after several minutes of increasingly hostile conversation I had to hang up on him.
Next week when the capsule arrived I put the Danilov device inside and sealed it. Then I took it home. Early the next Saturday morning, my wife was surprised to see me through the kitchen window, digging in the back yard. I told her as little about it as I could, explaining only that it was something for our children when they were adults. Monday I stopped by my lawyer's and had my will amended to specify that our house and property could not be sold for at least fifty years, and that at that time the capsule should be opened. Perhaps the world will be different then, and able to accept the device.
I will have to leave that for the next generation.
John DiFonzo (email@example.com) is a long-time denizen of Silicon Valley. He works for a small start-up computer company. (Bio last updated in 1994.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 John DiFonzo.