Inventor of the Week Archive
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Elwood “Woody” Norris proves there is no magic formula for
becoming a successful inventor. Born in 1939 in Barrelville,
Maryland, his mother and father had eighth-grade and third-grade
educations, respectively, and Norris’s formal training stops
with high school. But his aptitude for electronics and entrepreneurship
and his enthusiasm for creating new technologies has taken
him to the top of his game. Now the Chairman and CEO of American
Technology Corporation in the San Diego suburb of Poway, California,
he has more than 40 U.S. and 100 international patents and
a variety of successful inventions to his credit in fields
as diverse as sound technology, transportation and medicine.
Norris learned about electronics through tinkering with
radios in his youth and discovered a natural ability to understand
how circuitry worked. He joined the Air Force, where he received
some training in radar and electronics while working on triggers
for bombs. To supplement his military income, he took a job
at a nearby television station as a cameraman and thought
he might pursue acting after his military service was complete.
As a high school student he had enjoyed participating in school
productions and possessed some talent as a performer.
Instead, when Norris left the Air Force as Airman Second
Class, he took a job at the University of Washington fixing
electronic equipment. Within two years he was named director
of the campus’ Engineering Experiment Station. When a local
company approached him, he took on the task of developing
a sonar version of radar to listen to sounds inside the body.
This “Doppler” tool emitted ultrasonic sound into the skin.
Changes in the pitch of the sound waves that bounced back
allowed physicians to “hear” movement inside the patient.
The tool, licensed to Medical Development Corporation (which
was later acquired by American Hospitals), was helpful to
the development of the Sonogram, and, as Norris received company
stock for the device, it also helped him make enough money
to set up his own company.
Soon Norris sold a phonographic tone arm he had been working
on and evolved a specialization in audio-related devices.
His subsequent inventions included headsets for mobile phones,
a hearing-aid-sized FM radio, and automobile audio systems.
He also created a child locater device for tracking kidnapped
children, an alarm worn by a person to alert him that his
artificial hip is starting to separate, and a design for a
vehicle dubbed the AirScooter, an easy-to-fly, lightweight,
inexpensive aircraft that has the ability to hover in one
spot while a pilot gets his bearings. Norris has worked with
NASA engineers to develop a prototype of the AirScooter, which
he dreams will one day be viable as a commuter vehicle.
Norris is perhaps best-known for his most recent work on
what is known as HyperSonic Sound. HSS, or directional sound,
targets a listener with sound waves similar to the way a laser
beam directs light, so that the individual who is targeted
is the only one who can hear it. As a result, different people
in one room could feasibly listen to different music, watch
totally different television shows or movies, or hear different
advertising messages without the use of headphones. Though
others are also working on the HSS concept, Norris holds more
than 20 patents in the field and is already realizing early
commercialization opportunities for this revolutionary technology.
With American Technology Corp., Norris is working on HSS and
other audio technologies, including a compact sub-woofer,
and “sonic bullets,” which emit intense beams of sound at
targeted individuals giving them painful migraines.
Norris has been honored with numerous awards for his work
including Product of the Year awards from “Popular Science”
and “Business Week,” and a 1997 Award for Technological Innovation
in the sound category from “Discover Magazine.” In 2005, Norris
was the recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.