How I did not become a billionaire
I had some interesting ideas, but was never able to follow all the way up to realize their full potential.
It wasn’t easy, but I managed to do it. Not become a billionaire — like everyone else. Quite an achievement.
Let us start with the first missed million. Back in 1981 I came up with this device, which I called the Mecca Meter. I thought a substantial section of the world’s population urgently needed it.
The device would allow you to check a table for your current location (no GPS at the time!) and then move the dial to a corresponding number. After that you could rotate the Finder and it would beep when it pointed directly to Mecca.
I developed a design which made the engineering trivially simple: the dial rotated a housing that contained a compass. It had a photo-electric switch which tripped the beep when the compass needle passed through it (or when a hole in compass disk did so). Material costs and electronics: approximately nothing. A friend and I developed design drafts and wrote the necessary documentation. Then we filed for a patent, in London. It cost 100 German marks and was duly granted. We were set to go.
But: although the friend, Felix, had excellent contacts with device manufacturers, and experienced cordial, enthusiastic reception of the idea from them, nothing ever came of it. The follow-up was missing. I myself showed the design to a friend who ran a manufacturing enterprise in Hong Kong. He was immediately interested, but an enquiry a few months later revealed that he had scrapped any plans to actually build it. So we gave up.
Many years later I told by an associate that he had seen a “Mecca Compass” on his travels in Asia. That did not surprise me, because in the meantime there were plenty of “Qibla direction finders” like the one on the left, which you can still get from Amazon for £3.95. You read the value for your location in a table and turn the dial accordingly.
But the friend described an electronic device which beeped when it pointed in the right direction, and his further description led me to pull out our original schematics. “Yes, that’s it,” he said. So it turns out that the “friend” with the manufacturing facilities may have forged ahead, without our knowledge or consent. I tried to contact him, but received no reply to my (actually quite friendly) question. Some time later I learned that he had passed away. I do not mention his name because it might not have been him, but somebody else working from our design. It was really time to let it go. Today there are dozens of Qibla Direction Finders for your smartphone. They are trivially easy to program and usually free of charge. It’s the way the world goes.
Here’s a short one: in the early 1980s I drew up plans for roof-based solar water heating panels that would be contained in inflated, transparent plastic bubbles. These would be filled with carbon dioxide, to maximize the heat collected. A patent lawyer in Buchholz (in northern Germany, where I lived) agreed to look into the matter, but after a few days told me that it had already been patented, by a German inventor. Actually I knew this person and had spent a month with him in San Diego, on an unrelated project. Carbon dioxide panels had never come up during my stay, though in fact I may have thought of it because of the other mega energy projects he was designing. That is a story for another day.
Okay, the Mecca Meter and CO2 panels were small fry compared to my next heroic failure. It actually happened before the previously described ventures, in the early 1970s. As a TV science journalist I had gained a reputation of being an expert in computers and machine intelligence. I was free-lance, and a Swiss-owned company that was manufacturing chess computers and assorted electronic devices invited me to their headquarters in Hong Kong, for a big development conference.
I was flown to HK in business class and put up in a very luxurious hotel. The other participants were engineers and managers from all over the world, and I felt a bit fazed by the high-power meetings. I did not have a lot to contribute — in fact I spent most of my time staring out of the panorama window of the 20th storey office, watching planes land on the Kai Tak harbour airport, waiting for one to overshoot and plunge into the sea. Kai Tak is easily the most dangerous airport in the world. Go to this Mail Online photo report to really understand my fascination.
The CEO and owner of the company was a very well educated man who spent a lot of the free time during my visit discussing philosophy, music, science, literature, and other non-commercial subjects with me. On the weekend he took me on a hike up Dragon’s Back, which was quite exhausting — especially since I was not wearing the right gear (shorts and t-shirt, like him). But at the top I was rewarded with a truly spectacular view and one of the best meals of my life: raw carrots and fizzy mineral water. Seriously, I have never eating anything quite as delicious.
Well, the bad conscience remained and I felt they had wasted a lot of money getting me to the conference. Towards the end there was a brain-storming session planned, were everyone was encouraged to present ideas, free from the constraints of current manufacturing projects. I was determined to justify my presence, to some small degree, by doing a good presentation. I spent much of the night before preparing, with sketches and diagrams. And at the meeting I told them what I thought they could do.
The company built electronic devices, including chess computers, designed in Europe and manufactured by partner companies in Hong Kong and mainland China. My proposal was they develop an electronic box that connected to the TV set in your living room. It should have a slot for hardware games modules. The box would have two joysticks attached, with wires long enough for you to sit back on a sofa and play games that were displayed on the TV screen. The hardware modules meant there would be no illegal copying, so that funds could be invested in advanced games with guaranteed sales.
When I had finished my presentation there was a somewhat embarrassed silence. Would my box be able to run utility programs, would you be able word process or send emails? Did I not know that the next big thing was general purpose hobby computers? Ah, well, Fred’s quite a bright chap, but he has no idea of the practical future and the commercial necessities of the electronic industry. There was one exception — the British representative came to my defence: hang on, hang on, let’s think about it! Maybe it’s not such a bad idea. But he was talked out of his enthusiasm and everyone returned to saner ideas.
In the end my game box was built, two or three years later, and it was phenomenally successful, selling over two million units. Unfortunately not by my friend in Hong Kong, whose company was poised to manufacture the box, but by a Japanese playing card company, which unfortunately had never heard of me or my idea.
Nintendo today posts a net value of more than $40 billion and is the leading games console company in the world. And my friend’s company: they now build computer peripherals like keyboards and mice, and are valued at $13 million. Such a damn, damn shame!
There were other ideas in subsequent years, none of which worked out really. Well, one of them did: in 1985 I was visited in Hamburg by a young chess grandmaster who was on the path to World Championship. Garry Kasparov and I spent a number of evenings discussing computers and how they could help professional chess players study the game. We worked out the design for a “chess database” which he entreated me to build. I was not a programmer, but as fate would have it, a few months later I met a young physics student, Matthias, who had actually started implementing such a system. We founded a company together and launched a chess database software called ChessBase, which Garry, now a legendary World Champion, supported for more than ten years. He provided ideas and encouragement, but also promotion and endorsements, ads and PR events. Of course we paid him handsomely for these services: a total of $0.00. You see Garry doesn’t take money from members of his family, which I had nominally become. Today ChessBase has around thirty salaried employees (plus many free-lance contributors) and has completely cornered the market.
I would write up the full story of Garry visiting me in 1985, in a separate article, but he himself has told it recently, in his book, Deep Thinking. He has done it entertainingly, and in considerable depth. Here’s an article excerpting the relevant passages: Kasparov on how it all started. Read it — and get his book, for $14. Reading it is well worth your time.