My days as an inventor started early, probably around age seven or eight, with my tying springs on my shoes to make running easier. Then, about a year later, I repurposed a paper shopping bag as a parachute. One summer, when my family was visiting the family farm in central Kansas, a childhood friend and I climbed up to the hayloft in the barn. Staring at the ground, about 9.5 feet down from the loft floor, I calmly slipped the shopping bag’s handles around my arm and jumped. Surprisingly, in now thinking about it, I landed safely in a crouch (I hadn’t yet learned about parachute landing falls). My only problem was that the eggs in my pocket, the ones we had just found in the hayloft before my jump, were now scrambled in a way that was definitely not going to have them make it to tomorrow’s breakfast table!
On to my time in the Army. While with the Military Equipment Team in Cambodia (operating from the U.S. Embassy Compound in Phnom Penh), we discovered that the paper encryption sheets we shared with the Cambodian National Armed Forces were very likely compromised. What to do, especially when perhaps the most critical of our own communications was just between two U.S. contractors out in the boonies coordinating food, ammunition, and energy shipments? One solution was to set up two similar but separate encryption systems: one for the Cambodians and one for all the Americans (limited by the Cooper-Church Amendment to only 50 in-country military advisors at one time). Such a solution would be not only expensive (cost of paper and distribution) but difficult to administer (which system was being used; would it also be compromised?). Enter my recollection of numerical codes (which I later discovered to be similar to George Washington’s Culper Code Book). Every month we would have the two contractors meet and establish a new form they would fill out and use daily. For example: First Number: Rice shipped (tons): x. Second Number: 105 mm shipped (rounds): y. … Twenty-sixth Number: Gasoline shipped (gallons): z, and so on. These numbers would then be encoded in the currently used encryption system. Bottom-line, the U.S. Army Security Agency quickly blessed our scheme, and the perplexingly critical communications security problem was solved.
Getting out of the Army after my five years, I went on to graduate school in business. Within a month and with dramatically decreased earning power, I confronted the high cost of haircuts, somewhere between five and ten dollars for long hair, not the previous fifty cents for a military buzz-cut.
A quick calculation revealed that the net present value of paying for monthly civilian haircuts over a lifetime was the equivalent cost of a new Cadillac. So just exactly what did these new 1970s hairstylists do that propelled their prices into the stratosphere? The most popular style, the layered cut, meant that the stylist cut the hair the same length all over the head. Simplistically (in terms of vectors and basic physics I learned at West Point), that meant paying for the talent of holding the scissors at a fixed length from the head. With necessity being the mother of invention, my first attempt at doing this for myself in the mirror resulted in an uneven cut. It wasn’t a bad job, but nowhere close to perfect, especially given that I tried only to take off a little bit. My next move was to put a paper cup as a spacer between my head and the scissors. Well, hey, that kind of worked. My final move was to concoct a device that comprised: a scissors with the pin removed and replaced with a bolt that had a threaded hole in it; a threaded rod about a foot long; and a concave drawer pull that would rest on my head, the pull connected to the threaded rod, which ran through the scissors. The overall effect was similar to a piano’s swivel chair. You’d swivel the scissors up and down the rod to the cutting length you desired. Voila, the “SWISSORS” (swiveled scissors) was born!
Over a couple of years, I sold many thousands of them through mail order and international sales, garnering all sorts of free press, including Newsweek and Playgirl. As well, I managed to take sales data I collected and turn it into several academic articles.
Then came an enticing offer. The scissors company customizing the scissors for me noticed the volume and began discussing taking over the design and paying me royalties. Their biggest customer was Kmart, so I knew the potential was large. Then our communications strangely and suddenly went dark. After a little while, I enquired. Unfortunately, my champion, the company’s president, had died, and his son was taking over. Furthermore, as I discovered, the son’s aim was to sell the business or shut it down. Well, it shut down, and so did my SWISSORS sales. By that time, I had already taken a “real job” with Rockwell International and had no time to devote to running a business on the side.
I should say that during this early period, I also invented an air control device, which I dubbed “Airball” for its basketball implementation in a table-soccer-like game. Bally was interested in it, as was a highly successful invention think tank. Regrettably (as I later discovered), the think tank, after seeing my concept demonstrated, secretly filed for its own patent. I suppose this was all moot, as soon afterward Atari introduced its Pac-Man game, blowing away most anything that might compete with it.
My “fame,” if you could call it that, during this early period also attracted some attention in the way of suggestions for other patents (for a small percentage, of course)! In my “great wisdom,” most of these I quickly discarded. One was from a friend who said that adding a vacuum to the scissors would both pull up the hair to the desired length, cut it, and suck away the messy hair strands. Who would want that? Apparently, lots of folks (“The Flowbee”). Another friend (from the Air Force Academy) suggested adding Velcro to sneakers for easy tying. Who would want that? Apparently, everybody for the next twenty years. He also suggested a method to use a person’s own body weight as the basis for a home gym. Who would want that? Apparently, lots of folks, even to this day!
Well, during my subsequent corporate years working with various teams, I did manage to contribute to some noteworthy product successes, probably the best of which was Rockwell’s Third Generation of Modems. While I was Product Planning Manager at Rockwell Semiconductor’s Telecom Group, our new products took our group from $17M per year to $100M/year, subsequently going to a $1B/year for over a decade before the division was sold off. Another success, this time at Harris Semiconductor, was my noticing that our $1M/year royalty payment for using another company’s patent was now unwarranted, as our new design was markedly different. Voila, we just saved $1M/year (where a penny saved equaled a penny earned equaled having to sell ten pennies worth of product to earn that one penny)!
Moving to my own manufacturers’ representative firm also helped produce some “world-beater” products, most of which came about by listening to customers aching to have a problem solved and then finding a manufacturer who could introduce the right product. Again, find a need and fill it!
During my work downtime over the years, I’ve also been known to come up with some time-saving ideas. For example, on the way to getting my Extra Class Amateur Radio License, I invented a mnemonic scheme to “learn” Morse Code in an Hour (or even 10 minutes; it’s now free; you can search for it online). Depending upon the person, learning Morse Code can take many, many hours. In any case, my technique enabled thousands to quickly get their ham radio licenses.
(Note: Learning Morse Code is no longer needed to get an amateur radio license, but, as I’ve noticed in a number of movies, it’s a valuable skill that can definitely help folks save the world from alien invasions!) I’ve also discovered some concepts that were later taken to the bank by others independently conceiving them as well. The most notable example is the Atkins Diet.
A concept that I’ve recently discovered and am calling the “Bahr Stretch” has dramatically enabled me to mostly overcome a repeat-use injury (hip tendinosis) that’s been bothering me for ten years, despite only limited improvement from previously having seen a dozen professionals. My approach appears to have also worked for a crick in my neck from having too many times tried to start a power washer, as well as for pains elsewhere on my body from holding prolonged pretzel positions while working elsewhere on my house. Whereas before, I could only spend 15 minutes in a chair before I’d have to get up and move around due to the aforementioned hip problem, I attribute the “Stretch” to helping me to overcome it and complete a new book I’ve been working on for years (Strategic Advantage: How to Win in War, Business, and Life).
In parting, let me say that I like to record and systemize what I do in the way of inventing, so I’ve come up with “Instant Productivity: 101+ Ways to Create,” which I included in the back of one of my earlier books (Strategy Pure and Simple). Of course, and again, what I try to do is something I learned in our physics courses at West Point: think in terms of basic needs (not a drill but a hole) and forces (vectors). And, of course, with good timing and luck to solve new problems, maybe a Force will be with you…and me…sometimes coming out of seemingly nothing!
Jim McDonough says
Bullly for you, Bill. Your article is very ‘inventive’. Well done!
Pete Grimm says
Who knew? Inventor, author, to add to all around good guy! Pop up your chest.
Dave Hill says
Thanks for this great view of your inventing life, Bill. It brought back many memories of my own journey as a patent and trademark attorney for over 45 years. I could write a book about many of the things I worked on during those long days and nights in the office. One of my favorite clients was also my first one, who is still inventing to this day. I met him when he was a LTC in the marines, and was thinking of what do do after he retired. He had an idea that he could pay a penny for each aluminum beverage can that was collected by the grocery stores. He came to see me when I was a first year associate in a small patent law firm. He described a machine to me that would be about the size of a soda machine. It would receive a can and check it to verify that it was aluminum. Then it would crush the can and pay the penny. I wrote him a patent application with only this description, and some help from the electrical engineer who was next door to my office. He used that patent to raise some venture capital, and the rest is history. Eventually, his machines were found in grocery stores throughout the major cities, and they could handle several different types of containers, pay deposits in states where they were required, and made life much easier for the grocery stores. He later sold that business, and started several more companies based on totally different ideas. He still calls me now when he has a new idea for something inventive!
Bill Bahr says
Thanks to all who have left and will leave replies! Special thanks to Suzanne & Chris Rice and their whole team who’ve produced and included my article in their fantastic media vehicle for keeping USMA 1969 moving 4ward.
For those curious, the “Bahr Stretch” for aching muscle/joints is very simple. In “Which Doctor?” terms (and as they say: “Don’t try this at home!”), I first determine that the body part in question is not broken. Then I rotate the rest of my body around the joint for 360 degrees (obviously, I don’t try this with my head a la “The Exorcist”), noting at which position the pain is greatest. After this “prime pain detector” effort, I concentrate on holding that position for a minute or so, stretching the muscles. After a day or so of doing this, I’ve noticed the residual pain dramatically decreasing and often being eliminated entirely. This is in comparison to other methods that recommend this or that exercise but without focusing exactly on the position causing the most pain. Also, for daily activities, I generally try to keep in mind the wisdom of balancing “No pain, no gain!” with “If it hurts, don’t do it!” Hope this helps!
guy miller says
Fabulous stories. Glad you shared them with us.
Most people do not understand that a patent does not protect the invention or the inventor. A patent merely gives the holder the right to sue his infringers.
My father received several patents during his life, but sadly, he spent all his later years immersed in infringement lawsuits against mega-corporations that stole his ideas. Psychologically these lawsuits ate him and all his finances up. He died a broke and bitter man.
Dave Hill says
A good patent attorney might have kept him out of court and helped him to license his patents! Too bad he could not have gotten what he was entitled to receive.
Bill Bahr says
Sorry to hear of your dad’s misfortune. Getting a patent to pay off is, like selling a book you’ve written, at least half the work! It reminds me of a story of a very good friend (RIP), an electrical engineer that my wife, Mary, calls “one of the great (and unsung) minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” Working for Collins-Rockwell, he was highly instrumental in inventing the Automatic Call Distributor, the machine that efficiently distributes calls to agents involved in any number of activities, for example booking airline reservations. Highly creative, he had written his earlier PhD dissertation involving the innovative use of Huffman codes for fax machines. Throughout his life, he and his university pursued any number of efforts to claim royalties after he realized Japanese fax manufacturers were embedding his idea in their products. As would happen, my friend and his wife divorced, with she getting most of their property but he getting the “worthless” patent. Finally, after many years, he engaged a “shark” lawyer, who on a contingency basis took up the challenge, but demanded half the royalties, with the university getting a third and my friend getting a sixth. Well, the lawyer won a lawsuit, getting one fax manufacturer to cave, making it easier for the next to cave, and the dam suddenly broke. Royalties came gushing in, with the university using a portion of its royalties to name a chair for my friend. Needless to say, my friend was true to himself: still the same great and generous person, still thrifty, and especially proud that he could keep his vacuum cleaner going for over close to fifty years! 🙂
Best regards & BOTL,
Bill Bahr says
And, to be more exact, though hopefully not diminishing my”credentials” too much, my piano teacher (Frau Maria Konkowski) was not the student of Franz Liszt but the student of the student of Franz Liszt, who, I’ve just recently discovered, had many, many students. 4WIW, Liszt was the student of Czerny, a student of Beethoven, student of Mozart, student of Johann Christian Bach, student of Johann Sebastian Bach. C’est la vie, oder besser gesagt, so ist das Leben! 🙂
DENIS GULAKOWSKI says
An amazing story! I had no idea you were so talented and participated in so many “inventures”. Also appreciate your communication skills in keeping the class informed.
Stewart Bornhoft says
Bill (et al) — A remarkable chain of stories and responses prompted by your inventive instincts.
BTW, your book Strategy Pure and Simple is a definite winner … and its successor an even bigger one!
Lead on, my friend. Lead on!
Bob St. Onge says
Bill: Thanks for a neat story, especially about the swissors invention. By the way, Does it contribute to early on-set baldness? Just wondering.
Bill Bahr says
Hard to say, but either way, I’m not paying barbers anymore! 🙂
Best regards & BOTL,
Eric Robyn says
Bill, thanks for bringing your creative side to us with such an interesting series of inventions! Hope you’re working on the solutions to batteries for EVs.
Ray Dupere says
Bill, thanks for the very interesting story. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who once said that every life has a story to tell … and in your case several. BTW, I once tried to “invent” a parachute using a bed sheet. However, I don’t remember it ending quite as well as your effort. Which makes me wonder how I ever managed to maintain my interest in following my dad as an Airborne Infantry officer.