What’s the career path to become an inventor? Knowledge at Wharton asked Brown about how he got into the invention business.
Knowledge at Wharton: What did you want to do as a young man? What did you study in college?
Brown: I was a mess in college. I think I am a sort of ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] guy. They have put a name to it [now], but there was no name [back then]. I was just kind of scattered. Bright, but not focused; could do the work effortlessly in high school so I could coast and never really do the homework.
My idea in college was to be a celebrated student, a celebrated member of my class. That was my whole desire. I wanted to be class president, and I wanted to be an entertainer. I loved doing standup. I was trying to be a folk singer. I had no academic goals at all. I had no idea that there was anything there for me to learn. What I was there to be was some kind of celebrity — which didn’t work out very well.
The folk singing went well but, in order to become a folk singer, I had to flunk everything to lose a Navy scholarship that I had won — or I would have been an enlisted man. If you flunk everything, the Navy releases you as useless. If you just quit, you’re an enlisted man for four years.
So I outlined my plan to my father — to flunk everything in order to be a folk singer. He was silent. He was stunned. He just couldn’t grasp it. I said, “This plan, unfortunately, is pretty far underway.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Was that by intention or happenstance?
Brown: Well, I suddenly realized I hadn’t been to any of these classes. I had no possibility of passing the tests. It came as a shock to me.
Knowledge at Wharton: So did you, in fact, flunk out?
Brown: I did. I flunked five courses with Fs. Once I undertook to flunk out, I did it as well as I could.
Knowledge at Wharton: Which institution was this?
Brown: Tufts University.
So, near the end of my sophomore year, I left to be a folk singer. I had found a guy who was a great singer, and I was a reasonably good guitarist who did humor. So we were a folk act. For three years we did hundreds of college concerts, made a record for MGM, and so on. I thought: That’s what I’m going to be for life. I loved it.
We argued all the time: He wanted things to be more musical and I wanted them to be more show biz. In the end, we split up, and I suddenly had no job at all.
In 1964 I was newly married, but with no possible way to get a job. I had no skills that anybody wanted; I had no degree. Somebody had said to me that advertising is a great “bolt hole for ne’er-do-wells.” A friend of mine who had gotten a job as an account man for McCann-Erickson put it that way exactly.
At that point I had fallen in love with an 8mm Bolex [film camera] that a neighbor of mine had. I started really getting infatuated with shooting film and thinking about film. That’s when I went into the library. My wife worked; I spent three months reading all the books [on film in the Philadelphia Public Library]. [See “Garrett Brown: Inventing the Future — along with a Few Handy Personal Gadgets”.] I tried to get a job in one of the 30 or so film companies in Philly then. None of them would hire me — not even to sweep floors, as the saying goes. I mean, they would say, “Well, can you A and B roll and cut negative?” [I’d say,] “Well, I know how to do it, [although] I haven’t ever done it.” [And they’d say,] “Get out of here.”
So I decided to try and get a job in an ad agency as a writer. I made a resume, myself — one resume of construction paper with photos from my folk days and reviews and all this stuff that I thought would be impressive to somebody. [It was] probably one of the weirdest resumes anybody ever saw. I showed this to people in the ad biz. I had only one suit — a horror show from George Jacobs Big and Tall. I just looked like a clown to these guys [in the advertising agencies].
One guy decided to give me a junior copywriting job because, on the way out, I said, “Look, let me try and write some ads for you, just test ads. Will you at least look at them?” He said, “Well, all right. I’ll look at them.” I did a couple of ads, full of puns and what I thought was good ad copy, and showed them to this guy. He showed them to his subordinate and they said, “All right, we’ll give you a try as a copywriter.” So I came home triumphant that I had a job for $6,000 a year writing ads.
Then the agency producer left, and that job was vacant. Since I had all this chat about film — I could talk about the grammar of film and so on — I was the guy there who seemed to know the most about film. So they gave me the job of agency producer.
I turned out to be good at it. We won tons of awards. The agency suddenly was known for its TV output. And the agency [I worked for] was bought by a New York agency on the strength of these awards that we had won — me and this very funny young woman who had become my writing partner.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is this Anne Winn?
Brown: Right. But by that time I decided I wanted to be on the producing side, and left to form my own little company, in a barn. So then I was a starving film producer. Then I was a director for another company when that didn’t work. Then I bolted and re-opened my company when I had learned, really, about how to do filmmaking.
I specialized in special effect spots — weird film effects based on tweaks of the system. For example, I had a crystal cut so the camera would run crystal-controlled at 12 frames. I recorded the narration of a guy and played it back at half speed, so he could mouth the words at half speed while he was moving as fast as he could. Of course, when you played it back at projection speed, he’s speaking normal speed but he’s doing impossibly fast things with his hands. [The character] was an accountant, adding up on an adding machine. That was just startling as hell to look at. It won an award.
Then I did one where a guy is speaking forwards but moving backwards. We had to devise nonsense syllables for the guy to memorize that put his lips in the right place in time backwards by analyzing the speech in reverse on an editing machine. If he said, “Fix or pitch the ocean up” — if you look at it in reverse — he’s lip syncing the line, “Money sure is slippery stuff.”
That turned into another celebrated spot. It was that kind of thing I was doing. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to think about a way to isolate myself from this damn camera so I could carry it around. It just sort of evolved.
I kept up my film company and went off and did movies with the Steadicam. Then I urged my wife to open a company, and I worked for her as director. Around 1990, I decided that I wanted to invent full time and do fewer movies.
I had done the SkyCam — with mixed results. By ’90 there was no SkyCam around. I wanted to do this “walking machine,” as we call it around here. I also wanted to do a solar-powered lawn mower, which I still think is a wonderful project. We piss away so much fuel cutting grass. I actually did a demo that indicates there’s plenty of sunlight to cut [an entire] lawn as long as the [mower does it] sensibly, and not just [mowing at] random. I tried to interest some corporations and a couple investors in working on that one. I hired some kids from Penn, as their graduate thesis, to do the software for the course on how this thing would cut grass, based on a miniature version of GPS that locally positioned itself within a couple of inches [using] little solar-powered transponders. It all looked really practical to me. And I had a couple of other ideas.
So I thought I would be a full-time inventing guy. But I couldn’t find the backing for the mower, and I didn’t make much progress on the walking machine. The Steadicam JR came out and actually it was a big hit. I got a couple of calls from the networks about [whether] I could do an underwater camera that stayed with the swimmers, because by now I was known to be the guy who did the weird camera things. [And they said,] “Oh, and by the way, we just spent all the money on a Japanese company that tried to do it. They tried to do it with air pressure, and it was a disaster because bubbles kept coming up and it kept blowing out pipes, and so on. So, the money’s mostly gone. But can you think of any way to do it?”
I couldn’t resist that. I couldn’t resist the idea of looking at the problem in the same way. What is the simplest, most reliable, easiest possible way to do this? And what is the most slender, thinnest, most fun way to do it?
If I show up with motors, the electrical inspectors are likely to chuck me out of there. You can’t have motors and cables running right near the water in a pool — unless it’s a device they were used to for years.
I decided to make it hand driven with a crank and to simply pull it back and forth with its own little coax [cable] that is taking the video. That dictated a little submarine that would hide on the lane line with a tiny little remote-control camera inside a glass dome. The whole thing is narrower than the black lane line [and is] on black rails, so you can’t see it. You know, one thing led to another. We did the whole works for something like $70,000.
Knowledge at Wharton: This was the MobyCam?
Brown: MobyCam — for the Barcelona Olympics. It was a huge hit.
Then in ’96 they called me to do four SkyCams and twelve GoCams, and [they said,] “Oh, can you do a diving camera that will fall with the divers?” I couldn’t resist it.
That occupied us throughout those years. Then, to my astonishment, SkyCam was revitalized. A new licensee came on like gangbusters, went for it, sold it to the XFL because, if you recall, they were very video-game oriented. The NFL finally looked at it on the air on the XFL and said, “Okay, we gotta have this,” pretty much as of when the patent expired.
Knowledge at Wharton: The radio campaigns that you did with Anne Winn. Where did those come from?
Brown: A guy who we worked with thought Anne and I were very funny. He was a fan of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and he had an account for a clothing store in Philly. I had a decent voice and Anne has a wonderful laugh. Arnie said, “Look, why don’t you guys try and do a ‘Nichols and May’ on this thing.” So we tried to ad lib a commercial. It took longer than anyone imagined. But in the end it was actually very funny, and the [client] did gangbusters business.
For us it was an invention: Under what circumstances could two seemingly intelligent people actually talk about a product? That drives the whole thing.
Knowledge at Wharton: Did these spots start with a script that was roughed out?
Brown: No. They just started with who you are.
Knowledge at Wharton: You would just go into character?
Brown: And 20 takes later, you would think of a good end line and cut that into the earlier [dialog]. We never had much luck writing them. When agencies would try to get rid of us because we were very expensive — we were fired by Molson twice — they tried to write [the ads] themselves. Sales plummeted. We were rehired twice by Molson.
We have spots that were on the air 13 years non-stop for Molson, which may be some kind of record.
Then Amex [hired] us. I [finally] retired from doing radio after we did Kodak in ’75, because I was in the movie world and Anne was married and was raising race horses. We both said, “All right, we’ve done enough of this.”
Then in 1980 the agency in Rochester that had Molson dragged one out of the drawer and used it as a trial balloon against [an ad] they wanted to use. The focus group, which was a new invention at the time, went nuts for the one we had done.
Knowledge at Wharton: What did they use?
Brown: They used “Border Crossing.” That’s the one that was on the air so long. So they called us up and said, “You know, this is testing really well, we want you to do some more.” And we said, “Nah, we don’t do that anymore.”
They said, “Well there has to be some number that would interest you in doing this.” We looked at each other and we named the worst number we could think of and they said, “Fine.” So we were back. It was that Molson money that paid for the SkyCam.