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Chip Inventor Wins 20-Year Patent Fight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gilbert Hyatt, a slender, bearded engineer, says he would never shoot the two rifles that are mounted over the fireplace in his modest, two-story home on a quiet La Palma cul-de-sac.

But he is not afraid to take steady, dead aim when it is necessary to get what is rightfully his.

“I’m a little guy up against the big guys,” Hyatt, 52, said Wednesday.

And this David landed a Goliath of a blow Tuesday when it was revealed that he had been awarded a patent last month for inventing the microprocessor, or computer on a chip. Hyatt had sought the patent, which was issued by the U.S. Patent Office, for 20 years.

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The news could turn the computer industry topsy-turvy and make Hyatt wealthy if he is able to collect millions of dollars in royalties from computer-chip makers. It could also earn him a recognition as an inventor who changed the world.

“I am happy that my invention was used to advance technology in so many ways,” he said, bearing a permanent blush from the recent media attention. “But it was frustrating without the recognition. This patent has settled everything in my mind.”

That is far from certain in many other minds.

The invention of the microchip, which has made most consumer electronic products possible--from pocket calculators to personal computers to VCRs--is frequently credited to a team of Intel Corp. engineers that included Ted Hoff, Federico Faggin and Stan Mazor and Texas Instruments Inc.

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The Intel team began working on the idea to help a Japanese calculator company in 1969, although Intel’s chip was not shipped until 1971. Texas Instruments, through the work of engineer Jack Kilby, also entered the market in the early 1970s.

But Hyatt, who has a stubborn streak honed by two decades of legal battles and industry skepticism, says he is prepared to defend his claims against pretenders and deep-pocket companies that have until now been credited with the microprocessor’s development.

Hyatt, who is an independent aerospace consultant and inventor, says he hasn’t worked for a big company for 25 years because he fears the environment would “stifle creativity.”

The son of immigrant parents, Hyatt was born in New York City and moved with his family to Southern California when he was 16. He attended high school in Long Beach, attended undergraduate school at UC Berkeley and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from USC.

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He showed an early entrepreneurial streak. After working for several small technology companies, he founded Micro Computer Inc. The start-up company obtained venture capital from Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco and also got backing from Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, founders of Intel.

Micro Computer grew to 25 employees between 1968 and 1971, but Hyatt said it folded in the midst of a dispute over rights to the technology. He claims to have developed the first microprocessor while working on electronic devices to run machine tools.

To his chagrin, Intel in Mountain View and Dallas-based Texas Instruments received patents for their own versions of the microprocessor in the 1970s and developed market applications for a host of modern electronic gadgets.

Hyatt did not give up, and he filed a patent application on Dec. 28, 1970. He asserted that his invention, first built in 1968, predated the Intel and Texas Instruments devices by several years. Yet he said he was unable to get the product to market.

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Stuart Lubitz, a Los Angeles patent attorney who represented Micro Computer until it folded in 1971, faults Hyatt for being stubborn. Lubitz said Micro Computer fell apart because Hyatt resisted imparting the rights to his inventions. “You can’t put Hyatt in the same boat with Noyce or Jack Kilby (who co-invented the integrated circuit and the hand-held calculator),” he said. “They were far more successful at advancing the state of the art and were not as obsessed with paper rights.”

Hyatt dismisses Lubitz as a representative of jealous competitors. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that he can be difficult. But he said he fights hard to have his patents approved because he believes that they are important inventions.

After a second company he founded folded in the 1970s, Hyatt ran into legal problems that nearly soured him on innovation. In 1978, he was sued by Mattel Inc. for encroaching on two of its electronics-related patents. He lost the suit to have his patents enforced, but a law firm in Washington saved him from financial ruin by picking up his legal costs.

The soft-spoken Hyatt has collected more than 50 patents in a broad range of areas. Much of his work in recent years has involved liquid-crystal display technology.

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When not inventing, Hyatt says, he collects Japanese artifacts such as swords, dolls and guns and plays with computers. He is divorced and has raised three children.

Hyatt said he knows the legal battle could continue if other companies challenge the patent’s validity. But he said the fight is worth it, and he hopes the recent patent victory will give credibility to other technologies that he is attempting to bring to market.

He said he plans to seek royalties to fund those projects, and he is forming a joint venture with an unnamed company to begin enforcing the patent. He wants to use the money--which could amount to millions of dollars a year--for more high-tech developments.

Hyatt said he is not a tinkerer, and he pursues research that he hopes will lead to commercial applications.

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“Some inventors just invent, but I try to be broad in my areas of interest,” he said. “I consider myself a scientist, an engineer and, in some ways, an entrepreneur.”

Despite his travail, Hyatt says he is still excited about the environment for innovation today. And with the help of his patent attorney, Gregory L. Roth, who has argued on Hyatt’s behalf for 20 years, and a recently hired publicist, he hopes for more hard-earned recognition and innovations.

“I took a sigh of relief,” he said, when asked about his reaction to his patent award, “and went back to work on the new technologies that I’m trying to develop.”

WRANGLE EXPECTED: The battle to collect royalties on the microchip lies ahead. D1

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