Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Who invented the cell phone? A San Antonio inventor stakes his claim

by Adolfo Pesquera
(originally published Jan. 6, 2008 in the San Antonio Express-News)


Inside a huge glass case cluttered with electronic artifacts, propped next to a 1990-model laptop computer, David Monroe keeps a black-and-white photograph from the 1994 movie "Clear and Present Danger."

The photograph depicts the laptop's use in the movie. It was the first laptop that could transmit high-resolution photo images, and it once was used for government military and espionage operations.

"We built the laptop computer a quarter-inch smaller than a standard Samsonite briefcase," Monroe said. "The government loved it; we sold a ton."

During research for novelist Tom Clancy's film, Paramount Pictures learned of the laptop and asked to borrow one.

That's a snippet in Monroe's extraordinary life. An industrious inventor since his teenage years, Monroe is one of the 20th century's pioneers in image transmission technologies.

"In the first Gulf war, the camera that followed the bomb down to its target, that was his product," said Bob C. Curfiss, Monroe's former patent attorney. "He has a real expertise in telecommunications and in miniaturization and high-speed, high-quality digital communications."

Monroe and the San Antonio-based companies he founded or worked for gave the world such devices as the first camera cell phone, video teleconferencing and early breakthroughs in items we know today as laser printers, Flash RAM memory sticks and microprocessors.

Monroe's latest venture is e-Watch Corp. A company he started in 2000, it was inspired by the Columbine High School massacre.

"People were shot just by running into harm's way, not knowing what they were dealing with," Monroe said.

The company designs and manufactures sophisticated full-motion video and audio surveillance systems for schools and for government and corporate facilities.

Denton Independent School District was an early adopter of e-Watch products. Jack Farguson, the district's network administrator, said the surveillance system was less costly, more versatile and easier to maintain than its predecessor.

"When we first started using e-Watch, it was very unique," Farguson said. "There are more comparables now, but it's still one of the best quality systems."

Monroe, 55, doesn't disclose earnings. Except for a brief period in the 1990s when his previous company, PhotoTelesis Corp., was owned by Texas Instruments and then Raytheon Co., his ventures have stayed in private hands and all research and development is self-financed.

"The last venture capital I went out for was with Image Data Corporation," Monroe said, referring to a company he founded in 1983.

At Image Data, he invented and mass-produced the Photophone, a desktop device that transmitted photographs over a standard dial-up telephone line. It was a predecessor of the camera cell phone he later invented at PhotoTelesis in the mid-1990s.

"The first Photophone prototype was a Sony TV set we modified on my kitchen counter," Monroe said.

Its breakthrough commercial success came in the medical field, Monroe said. It was widely adopted in Canada in the mid-1980s to transmit X-rays to places where transportation could be impossible in winter.

Government agencies then asked Monroe to develop a similar model to function on encryption devices. However, his board of directors repeatedly turned him down on the grounds that government agencies were hard to work with and slow paying their bills.

Convinced that the idea had merit, Monroe left Image Data in 1985 to start PhotoTelesis.

The laptop that caught Paramount's eye was but one of many image transmission devices PhotoTelesis churned out. Black boxes installed in AH-64 Apache helicopters flew over Bosnia in the mid-1990s, helping U.S. peacekeepers.

"Within seconds, we can identify friend or foe and, if it is foe, get permission to engage," 2nd Lt. Kevin McAninch, then of the 17th U.S. Cavalry, told the San Antonio Express-News in a 1995 article on the devices' introduction.

Smaller hand-held versions were developed later for the U.S. Army. The Lightweight Video Reconnaissance System allowed soldiers to take high-resolution images and to mark them with a stylus the way a television sports analyst might do to explain a football play on a frozen frame.

In a field where innovation is constant, Monroe must contend with copycats. Others, for example, have made claims about inventing the camera cell phone, but he has the patent.

Monroe holds 25 patents and has patents pending on another 35 inventions.

"I'm suffering from my low profile," Monroe said, explaining that so much of his work was done for defense and covert operations. Launching e-Watch was motivated in part by a desire to expand his presence in commercial markets.

Curfiss, an expert in patent and intellectual property, said he worked with more than 50 of Monroe's patent applications. The Houston resident said he stopped representing Monroe a few years ago, but they maintain good relations.

"Some years ago, he went into an aggressive enforcement program, challenging people around the world that were using his patented technology," Curfiss said. "The firm handling it for him has the right to hire their own patent attorneys."

A Kansas native, Monroe enrolled at the University of Kansas as a physics major. Before graduating, he left college for a chance to work at San Antonio's Datapoint Corp.

"Datapoint is near and dear to my heart," Monroe said. "Datapoint was my college education."

At Datapoint, Monroe worked for Chief Technical Officer Victor Poor, the head of a team credited with inventing the first microprocessor chip that made personal computers possible. Monroe moved up in Datapoint during its heyday as a Fortune 500 company, leading development on numerous products.

Poor, who is 75 and living in retirement in Florida, said Monroe worked on various projects involving early desktop computers. Monroe was best known for Datapoint's advancements in video teleconferencing, he said. When Monroe left to start Image Data, Poor said he retired from Datapoint to be Image Data's president.

"Image Data was pretty well under way when I got there," Poor said. "I was president until we could recruit permanent management; I didn't need another career."

Monroe still sits on the board at PhotoTelesis, which has 25 employees. But the company was acquired in 2005 by Symetrics Technology Group, based in Melbourne, Fla.

Neither PhotoTelesis nor e-Watch manufactures its own products today. As orders grew, Monroe said, manufacturing was farmed out to manufacturing companies.

A Houston company makes e-Watch's surveillance equipment, and Symetrics Industries makes the entire PhotoTelesis line.

"Our expertise is really in engineering," Monroe said. "We keep generating new designs."

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