Forty-one years ago, when I was 17, I worked on something that made my heart beat faster each time I thought of it. I worked on this idea after my work chores on the farm were complete, and with a great amount of passion.
The project did not originate with my school. I began it in the summer of 1977.
I had been fixing television sets and reading my uncle’s Air Force television theory book. Back then, TVs ran on tubes and required a lot of maintenance. This was a skill I independently developed that helped carry me into college and pay the bills. It followed the time I built a digital clock and calculator from parts and chemicals ordered from a Popular Electronics magazine.
While reading a 1977 issue of Popular Electronics, I saw a new part: A LED dot matrix display for displaying the alphabet, not just numbers. From that I had an epiphany of building a large, flat screen television out of my own custom field of LEDs. Back then there was nothing remotely projecting the advent of a flat screen TV — this was an original idea.
I worked all summer on the project. No one quite understood what I was doing. By the fall I had the small prototype working in my bedroom. I used a new computer memory addressing chip to “address” a custom field of LEDs on a custom circuit board I had etched myself.
I used my mother’s transistorized kitchen television set to drive the necessary signals into my custom synchronization circuit and LED matrix. The flat LED TV screen design took a lot of time and effort to solve the synchronization challenges, but it finally worked and surprised my family.
I entered the project into the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as a paper that November. It won the honors group in January 1978. That got me invitations to scholarships and colleges. I worked on plans to build a larger one.
That March I was asked if I had anything for a science fair project. My first answer was no because I felt the design was a bit of a secret — not originally intended for the fair. I was asked again a week later and I agreed.
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It won the state science fair competition. I had judges that included local Rockwell Collins engineers that appreciated it. The most rewarding aspect was the trial and error and discovery.
The advice I have for young science fair participants is to think original.
Hanging a television on the wall was my stated goal to my family, and I did just that with my model at a time when television picture tubes weighed well over 100 pounds.
I recommend, if in your gut you believe you have a “home run,” to consult a patent professional. I have twice been a judge at the International Science and Engineering Fair. They take intellectual property seriously. I do wish I had the professional help they have today given the commercial outcome of the flat screen — mine was the front-runner.
I know competition is near and I wish everyone the best of luck with their projects.
I encourage contestants to use their intuition to envision a “profound idea” — be original, you have the ability to breakdown difficult problems.
• Jim Mitchell is retired and has 50 patents with Rockwell Collins. His 1978 breakthrough was a “Flat Low-Power Light Emitting Diode Television Screen.” He wishes all competitors good luck in the March 16 science fair.