A FEW VISIONARIES, MAVERICKS, THE DECIDEDLY ECCENTRIC, AND OTHER ENTRPRENEURIAL GREATS I HAVE BEEN PRIVILEGED TO KNOW
I am prompted to write about the above because of the piece I wrote yesterday praising such people. Most of the creative people I knew, or know, were, or are, movie stars or actors, or directors, or authors; but the following far from comprehensive selection all invented physical things, some of which went off with a bang.
DESMOND LESLIE: As far as I was concerned, ‘Uncle Desmond’ (an honorary title) was the most exciting friend my mother had. He was tall, good-looking, had a beautiful voice – and a wicked sense of humor. He was a Spitfire pilot in WWII, a relative of Sir Winston Churchill, and the family home was a castle in County Monaghan in Ireland. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and in the Fifties he designed the first effective sound mixing desk. I remember him showing it to me when I was about seven. In effect, Desmond enabled modern pop music. Little did I know that John Lennon would be married in his castle, and that he, Desmond, would become the subject of some awe in the music industry with fans such as Mick Jagger. He died in France in 2001.
MACK MCKINNEY: Mack was one of Ross Perot’s first employees when he set up EDS. Finding that too constraining, he set to work to create a free text database before such things generally existed. The net result was an extraordinary software program called askSam which pretty much saved my writing life. I suffer from a form of dyslexia and at the same time collect a vast amount of data. How could I find what I wanted near instantly, with such a flawed memory, without using the kind of structured database that was normally the only option then; and which required more expertise than I possessed to program? Mack provided the answer, and I was so impressed that I went to visit his operation in Perry, Florida. There, he took me into the swamps in a canoe – scaring me stiff – and then we spent an evening carousing in a fashion that can best be described as ‘memorable.’ Currently, Mack, and his delightful wife, Bea, are retired in Texas. Bill Gates, another of my software suppliers, was never as kind, or as much fun, let me tell you.
ROBERT EDISON FULTON: Bob, his wife Anne, and I became very good friends even though he was in his nineties, and I was close to half a century younger. Fortunately, apart from being slightly deaf, he was still sharp as a whip. In fact, the couple stayed with us when they visited Ireland. I contacted him initially because I wanted to feature one of his inventions in one of my books, and he invited me to stay. He also offered to meet me at the airport. As it happened, my flight was delayed, so fearing he might miss me, he chatted up a troop of tall, leggy, Las Vegas dancers who were in between flights, armed them with copies of my books which were everywhere in paperback at the time – and which featured my photo - and sent them on their mission. Let me tell you I was entirely taken aback to be greeted by such beauties – but decidedly flattered. Bob then appeared with a mischievous smile on his face. The man was a consummate inventor and a delightful human being. We talked a great deal, and I have rarely encountered a more interesting man. In WW II, he invented a gunnery training device which taught U.S. Nary pilots how to shoot (to good effect, as history shows). After WW II, he developed the first flying car – the Airphibian – that became government certified. It is now in the Smithsonian. And then he invented the Fulton Extraction System which allowed an aircraft to extract a man from the ground without landing – and without being a helicopter. An aircraft dropped a package containing a suit, a deflated balloon, and helium. The person on the ground climbed into the suit which was connected to the suit by way of an ultra-strong braided tape. He then inflated the balloon with the helium, and up it went for many hundreds of feet. A specially equipped aircraft would then capture the tape with prongs, and the person in the suit would rise off the ground until he was trailing behind the aircraft. He would then be reeled in. You would think the person would be wrenched to his death, but such is the power of geometry that his ascent was actually quite comfortable. The system – also known as Skyhook – was in active use by the CIA and the Air Force for decades. You can Google it for details.
DR JOHN HUNTER & DR HARRY CARTLAND: I tend to think of John and Harry as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of inventors in that I have never been quite sure who does what in their relationship. Either way, I met them because I had been researching the Supergun (you will recall the backstory which got George Bull assassinated) and then was invited to Lawrence Livermore National Lab to see the Supergun that John and Harry had developed. Better yet, I could see one actual firing. Naturally, I jumped at this invitation (actually I was living in Ireland at the time) but the shoot was worth it. A supergun has ‘super’ tacked on for a reason. You could work up a sweat sprinting the length of the barrel. The whole valley shook when it was fired, and the flame of the muzzle blast would have impressed the largest of dragons. Afterwards, the double act told me that their eventual plan was to use their hydrogen powered supergun to shoot supplies – and possibly satellites - up into space at a much lower cost than rockets. Since I am a sucker for crazy projects, I very soon became actively involved – for some considerable time - but that is an other story. The pair are currently alive and well, and living in California with their respective charming wives. Both are exceptionally talented men and no crazier than most pioneers. Their supergun may yet become operational reality. Rocketry remains alarmingly expensive and is an environmental disaster. In contrast, hydrogen’s byproduct is no more than water because the hydrogen combines with the oxygen in the air to make H2O. If you have $500 million seed money, this is the project for you. If nothing else, you will be thoroughly entertained.
DR. EDWARD TELLER: Teller, of course, is known as ‘The Father of the H-Bomb’ and was also one of the founders of Livermore. In addition, he was the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove (played in the movie by Peter Sellers). I met him because John and Harry’s supergun shoot ran a week late so they decided I had best be entertained by meeting one scientist after another. Memorable people. However, Teller was the star attraction and he lived up to his billing. What is more, our encounter had an audience. John, Harry and crew – there were quite a bunch there – had a lot of fun watching this formidable old man hammer me verbally while I tried to interview him. I guess I just about held my own, but it was quite an experience. The man’s scientific contributions were extraordinary. He died shortly after we met. I doubt our encounter was the reason. He was 95.