The Solitary Inventor

on July 22, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The solitary inventor once typified innovation in America. Over successive generations we’ve read about individuals who labored on their own in their workshop or garage to create their inventions. One example was Bob Olodort, a friend and business associate that spent his working life developing a range of unique products, often facing skepticism and criticism along the way.

I met Bob in 1992 when I was working for Seiko Instruments, the Japanese company that developed small printers for commercial use, such as in gas pumps and point of sale devices. Olodort had reached out to Seiko, looking for a partner to create his invention, a small, single-purpose label printer that would print a single label from a computer on demand. It eliminated the need to use a sheet of labels to print just one or the awkwardness of feeding an envelope through a conventional printer. His tiny printer also used software to automatically recognize an address on the computer screen to print the label with just a couple of keystrokes, an early example of using software to enhance hardware performance.

Olodort faced a lot of skepticism. Critics ridiculed the use of a thermal printer and using labels on formal correspondence, suggesting it was unprofessional and looked like junk mail. They said thermal technology was not suitable. Yet, like most inventors, Bob was undeterred, and dismissed the criticism.

Eventually, Seiko licensed the product concept and created the Seiko Smart Label Printer. As a recent hire at Seiko, it became my job to work with Bob to develop the product from concept to manufacturing. It was a contentious project within a normally conservative Japanese-based organization. But it had the support from Seiko’s U.S. management, notably Hiroshi Fukino and John Rehfeld, who cleared the path for the product’s funding from Japan and its U.S. development oversight. It was Seiko’s first product created and manufactured by its U.S. division.

The product came to market and was well-received. Like many products, its customers found new things to do with it, including labeling file folders, creating bar code labels, and organizing Rolodex files. This showed how one individual with an idea and perseverance created an industry that had not existed before.

Bob continued to do more inventing. A few years later I got a call from him telling me he was working on a new idea, a full-size keyboard that could fold into a size so small it could fit into your pocket. This would be used with PDAs, which were an emerging product category at that time. His vision was to replicate the same experience of a ThinkPad notebook, the standard of excellence for keyboards.

I was skeptical. Keyboards are made up of hundreds of tiny parts including keys, actuating mechanisms, switches and springs. I just couldn’t envision such a product. When he showed me his first prototype, it was even more complex than I had imagined. It was a series of key switches all mounted on a structure that rotated each key in unison into a vertical orientation, collapsing the keyboard into a stack of keys. It looked like a manufacturing nightmare, but Bob was undeterred. Like most inventors, none of these objections got in the way of his vision. He focused on the value of the end product. Issues like manufacturability, cost, and complexity were not reasons to stop, but reasons to continue. They were just more challenges to solve.

Bob and I eventually formed a company, Think Outside, that spent the next two years developing and building the Stowaway, the first truly pocketable full-size keyboard. It was sold under numerous brands, including Palm, Targus, Sony, and Nokia, and became the most successful accessory for Palm PDAs. All told, about 3 million units were sold with third year sales reaching $40 million. It was named product of the year in 2000 by PC Magazine and is included the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Bob showed once again how his ability to pursue a single idea with tenacity, patience and optimism, that by ignoring skeptics, could create a new industry. It takes a unique individual who is willing to work alone, focus on the end result, and to plow through the day-to-day setbacks to accomplish what he did. Few of us can do it, because we look for outside reinforcement and acceptance by our peers. Most of us don’t have the traits that Bob and other inventors possess that create truly breakthrough products. Many of us would have trouble working alone for months on end, as opposed to being part of large organizations that provides social support, but also often discourage individuality and taking risks.

Earlier this month Bob passed away after a long illness. But he will be remembered for bringing delight to the millions of users of the Smart Label Printer and the Stowaway Folding Keyboard.

A personal note from Tim Bajarin

I had the opportunity to work with Bob Olodort on the Stowaway Away Keyboard. It was a marvel of ingenuity and to this day is still the best designed folding keyboard I have ever used. For Palm, it was a godsend. While most people did use the Palm Stylus with Grafitti for input, the Stowaway keyboard made it an even more versatile productivity tool.

In the few years I worked with Bob, it became clear to me that he was the consummate inventor who loved working on new ideas and technologies and was passionate about the creative process. He represented the solitary inventor and symbolized the thousands of similar tinkerers and inventors around the world that have given us so many of the products we have used in the past and into today. He will be missed by his family and friends and by those whose lives he touched in the world of technology.