GS: And then all your patents ended up making them a lot of money later, didn't they?
RB: Well, you know, when the money started coming in, everybody told me how supportive they had been. Yeah, sure. But when the money started coming in, my name and the name of the corporate director of patents, who had negotiated the licenses, were up on the towering neon lights.
Every quarter, we'd be in the quarterly meeting, along with other division managers, looking at the performance of various divisions, and our licensing income was always bigger than that of the biggest division of the company. So we could do no wrong, right? That's when I started going out and doing my own toy and game design.
I got out of under running a division and became the first Engineering Fellow at Sanders -- later, Lockheed fellow -- and I could do what I wanted to. No one's going to question me as long as I bring in all that money, you know.
GS: Yeah, I'm sure that freedom is priceless for an engineer who wants to be creative and just do their own thing.
RB: Oh, yeah. I mean, I've had a ball for the last twenty-five, thirty years. If I hadn't have gotten out of under running a division, I'd probably be dead and buried by now. You know, with all the daily stress that goes along with an ordinary job. When you have major responsibilities. Yeah, all that stress...I didn't have any of it once the money started coming in, and once I was identified with the money coming in. 'Cause I was constantly in Chicago, or in San Francisco, or in Montreal, or in other places in court, defending the patents and making tons of money for them. Money's what counts.
GS: Long ago, I read about your disclosure document from 1966 that allowed you to get your first patent on video game technology, and I think your story shows the value of keeping good, accurate records about what you've done.
RB: Oh, that's of paramount importance...
GS: Do you think it's important for an inventor's success to keep great notes and records of what they do?
RB: Absolutely. From day one. Even if they're just hen scratches. As you work on stuff, you make notes. And they're called schematics if you're building electronics hardware. Everything has to be kept, everything has to be dated and signed, and if you think you've got something really serious going on, get somebody else who understands the stuff to read it and sign it. Sign it "Understood, blah blah blah, name, date." Makes all the difference.
Memory doesn't count for diddlywink in court, because it's totally unreliable. Even with the best of intentions. I know I caught myself in court having said something, asserted something, in the morning and then going through some document in the afternoon which instantly tells me that I was full of crap. And just because memory is what it is. It's very unreliable.
GS: Where did you acquire that record-keeping acumen -- that practice?
RB: To me, I'm just a logical guy. Yeah; I can't help it. Some people hate it, you know? I'm the kinda guy that goes into the kitchen...there's a piece of napkin on the floor. I gotta pick it up; I can't take it. If the faucet in the sink is wet, I gotta wipe it down. It's just me. So it never occurred to me that I wouldn't put down what I'm doing, and I certainly required it of everyone who worked for me.
At the time I wrote that four-page disclosure document, I was running close to five hundred people in a division, and everybody there was required to keep a daily notebook for the same reason. And mainly, it was required because the military requires it. If you work on a military program, you must keep a log and you must sign it, and counter-sign it, in some cases. [It's] part of the contractual requirement.
GS: So it kinda trickled down from the military influence.
RB: Yeah, discipline trickles down. It's a good thing it did.
GS: I think so too. That's what allowed you to make your case and prove it, obviously -- your records.
RB: You bet. And it was all there; you couldn't argue with it. You could see a schematic of what we did on December 29th, ya know? Don't argue with it. Show me a piece of paper of yours that says you did something similar a day before, or a year before.
I have yet to see the first piece of documentation from Atari. I know that Alan Alcorn, who designed the Pong machine, has got the original notes, which he's hanging on to. It's about time he gave that stuff up and gave it to the Smithsonian or someplace. But he's sittin' on them. He's also got some of the original wire-wrapped boards that he made. Some of that stuff exists, but not much. If you look for a running record of what went on in Atari in the first four or five years that's similar to the record we kept, you won't find it.
GS: It's definitely a case of two different cultures, I think. They were hippies, essentially, and you were a trained engineer.
RB: Yeah. Well, I'm a generation and a half, or two generations older than those guys. I'm an experienced, methodical engineering manager who's climbed up the ladder over the past twenty-odd years. These guys are 19, 20, 25...Nolan was a little older when he started Atari; he was about 28. But even so, he didn't have my level of experience and insight.