Elwood “Woody” Norris- The country boy who taught himself to create sound by manipulating air molecules.
"Virtually nothing has been invented yet." Elwood “Woody” Norris
If ever there was a story of someone who came from extremely humble beginnings and without the luxury of a formal education, went on to be recognized as a world class inventor and an extremely successful businessman, it would be that of Elwood "Woody" Norris.
While this article may seem to be much about innovation and the invention process, make no mistake that it is also a great American success story. And what makes it such a great success story is the way in which Woody Norris took himself from a simple country boy with no indoor plumbing, to a place some would call near genius- where he manipulates sound waves to do what no one else in the world has been able to make them do.
Today, Woody Norris is the owner of a company named the LRAD Corporation based in San Diego California. But the LRAD Corp. is actually a new corporate identity for Norris' invention workshop, the American Technologies Corporation which has been around since 1980.
And just what is LRAD?
LRAD is the Long Range Acoustical Device that you may have seen on the Discovery Channel and other news show over the past few years. It is an electronic device that focuses a beam of sound, created out of the air, and places it virtually anywhere you want to put it. The LRAD has been snatched up by the U.S. Military as a valuable weapon on the battle field, as well as protecting ships from terrorist attack. It is also being used on many commercial and even luxury liners to prevent acts of piracy at sea. Woody's LRAD device is able to focus a beam of sound on a person, or a boat load of terrorist, with enough intensity to induce pain so severe they are essentially stopped in their tracks. Yet people standing next to the device hear almost nothing.
Woody Norris' LRAD Corporation is the uncontested world leader in acoustic hailing devices. And in a report to the FTC on 12-21-10 corporate revenues were recorded to be 16.7 million for 2010.
So just how does Woody Norris' story help you?
One could argue I suppose that Woody was simply born a genius and destined to become both successful and wealthy no matter what. Perhaps that is one way to look at it. I would argue however that it was effort, hard work, and a thirst for learning that propelled Woody to become the world class inventor he is today.
Let’s go back in time and discover how Woody got his start in the world of invention and innovation.
INVENTION & LEARNING BEGAN IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
In the 1940s & 50s Woody was a young boy growing up in rural Maryland. While Woody no doubt had incredible loving parents, there was nothing about them that foreshadowed his success later in life. After all his father worked in the local coal mines and his mother was educated only to the 8th grade.
However, at a very young age Woody developed an interest in electronics. He began gathering old televisions, discarded radios and old tube consoles which he would study, dismantle and reassemble in an effort to learn as much as he could about how they worked. Woody's work shop was an old chicken coup in the back yard which he had to cover at night with a tarp to keep his work from getting wet. Woody began challenging his mind and seeking answers to tough questions at a very young age, and continues on this course to present day.
When he was old enough, Woody entered the U.S. Air Force where he studied electronics and learned the Doppler Radar. This is the closest he would come to a formal education. But don't think for a second that Woody Norris is not educated. While he still comes across as a down to earth country boy in many ways, listen to him speak and you will understand the depths at which he has educated himself in the science of sound.
After a short stint in the Air Force Woody ended up at the University of Washington, but not enrolled. Instead he worked as an electronics repairman in the university's repair shop. He did however have full access to the university library where he would go to expand his knowledge of electronics, and how things worked. It was while working at the University of Washington that Woody would cross paths with the world of invention. One day while reading an electronics magazine Woody stumbled across a contest. The contest was to write an article about an fake invention, for the April fools edition of the magazine. The person who submitted the winning article would win $300.
WOODY'S FIRST INVENTION
For his fake invention article- Woody decided to focus on the tone arm common to Hi-Fi music systems (record players). Woody would replace the tone arm with one that moved in a straight line across the record, instead of one that moved at an angle. He called his invention the "radial tracking tone arm." But here is what happened. The more in depth Woody got into his article about the radial tracking tone arm, the more he believed he could actually make it work. He ended up building a working model for an electronics company for a fairly lucrative deal, and then he patented his new invention. Eventually, the record player became obsolete and the radial tracking tone arm became obsolete with it. But in many ways Woody's future was already set.
A couple years passed when Woody ran into a couple of friends who were in the beginning stages of forming a medical equipment company. The friends had a sales plan, a marketing plan and even a financial strategy worked out, but they didn't have a product. Woody suggested that he would invent a product for them to market. To do this Woody relied on what he knew about most, sound!
THE VERY FIRST ULTRASOUND MACHINE- INVENTED BY WOODY NORRIS
In short, Woody used his knowledge of sound, and the power of thought and innovation to invent one of the world's first ultra sound machines. True, others had thought of using sound to listen or look inside the body, but Woody Norris was the first to develop a working model and receive patent protection.
His very first unit was built out of parts purchased at Radio Shack. These parts included a flashlight (which he gutted), a radio receiver, and an ultrasonic emitter adapted from an early TV remote. He smeared petroleum Jelly on his skin and began using the device to detect frequencies inside his body. He named his invention the "Phase-lock system for monitoring blood vessel movement," but it later became known as the Transcutaneous Doppler. A patent for this invention was issued in 1972 listing Elwood Norris as the inventor.
Woody's work on the project resulted in stock in the upstart medical equipment company in an amount equal to approximately $340,000. This would prove to be the launching pad for Woody's life of invention, innovation and patents.
SOUND BECOMES THE FOCUS of WOODY'S INVENTION EFFORTS
Woody would eventually focus on sound and the science of sound as the core of his inventing life. One of Norris' biggest contributions to sound so far in his life time has to be the development or invention of "Hyper Sonic Sound" also known as HSS.
You See, Woody new when it came to stereos or hi-fi systems everything in the system was composed of microelectronics and digital components; everything that is except the speakers. To Woody even the best and the smallest speakers on the market were nothing more than crude – mechanical - not to mention bulky contraptions which were subject to distortion. He set out to improve speakers by eliminating them.
All inventors have techniques they use to solve problems. One technique Norris developed over the years was invention by analogy. Norris asked himself, "to eliminate the speaker why not figure out how to make the sound happen in the air", using the air itself. He actually looked to the art world to come up with an appropriate analogy.
Artists will take a palette with six or 8 colors and mix them to make new colors. To apply that to sound he knew he would have to mix different frequencies together in order to create new ones. He knew mixing worked in electronic circuitry and he knew it worked optically, so why would it not work sonically. To further analyze the problem he asked himself; “Could you mix sounds that you couldn't hear to produce sounds that you could hear?" The answer Woody came up with was an absolute YES! . Instead of using mechanical devices such as speaks to vibrate air molecules, he would produce sound in midair by using mathematical combinations of ultrasonic waves.
Norris and his company, American Technologies Corporation would spend about $40 million over a period of about 8 years to come up with Hyper Sonic Sound. Even when Woody's own engineering staff began expressing doubt that they would succeed in creating a useful product, Woody persisted. Woody explains that "If you don't know something can be done, then it doesn't take a lot to get you to quit." But Woody was able to remain confident in his research because he knew that the analogy was correct. To explain his faith further Woody states "you can take great comfort if you are confident your analogy is valid."
In a speech in 2004 Woody told the audience that "virtually nothing has been invented yet." And he followed up with "I say that honestly." Now that would be completely laughable if it did not come from someone who holds approximately 50 U.S. Patents, and someone who figured out how to manipulate sound waves to create sound out of the thin air, and then place that sound virtually anywhere he wants to place it.
In 2005 Woody Norris was the winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT prize for inventing and developing Hyper Sonic Sound. At the time Woody was described as "the classic independent inventor who is self-educated, self-funded and self-motivated."
Woody's success in life is one of the purest forms of success there is. He used the power of his mind to learn, research, create, invent and innovate products ideas and systems that provide value to others. In a sense he created success out of thin air.
Think you are not as smart as Woody and that you would never be able to succeed in a similar fashion? Then you might want to take a look at the “Snuggie”. Well over $300 million in sales for a blanket with sleeves.............
If you have a few minutes take the time to listen to Woody speak. You will very quickly begin to see how an inventor thinks and looks at his surroundings. For aspiring inventors he talks about the invention process, asking questions out loud so his own ears can hear the questions he asks. It is a very inspiring and informative 15 minute talk.