SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco -- Some of the nation's biggest corporate chiefs wish Gilbert Hyatt had never emerged from the obscurity of his laboratory in Orange County, Calif.
His public relations agent has described him as "a beanie-and-propeller type." A California congressman calls him a tribute to American innovation.
Opinions on Mr. Hyatt range from admiration to disdain, but everyone seems to have one. U.S. Patent No. 4,942,516 made him an industry celebrity.
The U.S. Patent Office stood the electronics industry on its ear last summer when it awarded Mr. Hyatt rights to the basic patent for the microprocessor, the "brains" of modern computers, after virtually everyone in the industry had spent two decades congratulating a three-man team at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. for the same invention.
Intel alone could pay Mr. Hyatt between $10 million and $40 million a year, with other companies contributing lesser amounts to license his patent, said Daniel Klesken, analyst at Prudential-Bache Securities in San Francisco.
Now, Mr. Hyatt has become a kind of Pied Piper to independent inventors, preaching the heresy that the technology that drives American competitiveness is born not in the corporate research lab but in the garage.
"It's been well established that significant inventions come from individual inventors, not from major corporations," Mr. Hyatt told attendees at the CompCon '91 trade show in San Francisco earlier this year.
Preaching the gospel of independence to inventors has kept Mr. Hyatt busy. In the past six months or so, he has gone on a speaking tour, advised a California congressman and received another patent, this time for a technology that speeds up the performance of basic memory chips by as much as 300 percent.
His belated recognition as father of the microprocessor has thrust him into a national debate on American competitiveness.
Many corporate electronics leaders, such as Intel founder Gordon Moore, have long sought to convince government officials that they need to ease antitrust restrictions and fund industry research consortia to stop Pacific Rim competitors from eroding U.S. competitiveness. Mr. Hyatt, always the contrarian, opposes any government intervention.
"I think that's trying to protect a non-competitive asset rather than encouraging our competitive assets," Mr. Hyatt says.
Mr. Hyatt has won plaudits from free marketeers such as Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. A former press secretary for Ronald Reagan who now serves as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Mr. Rohrabacher invited Mr. Hyatt to Washington to plead his case.
"He's just the kind of guy that these corporate types and high-powered lawyer types think they can step on," Mr. Rohrabacher said.
While technology executives complain that a new pro-patent judiciary forces companies to spend millions of dollars on spurious patent suits, Mr. Hyatt counters that the judicial system's strict enforcement of patent laws is needed to encourage innovators.
"There's been a lot of criticism about patents -- mostly by people who like to borrow technology," he says.
The not-invented-here syndrome leads corporations to seek to submerge ideas not arising from the cabal of major electronics companies, Mr. Hyatt adds.
"Those in power are familiar with the current technology but intimidated by new technology," he says. "If we protect and if we reward the source of new technologies, you'll find that there will be a renaissance of technology."
Corporations pursue a slow evolution, "tweaking" well-established technologies to improve computer performance by 50 percent or even 200 percent, he says. But the "blockbuster" inventions spring from inventors working alone, he adds, as when David Hewlett and William Packard spawned a company from their garage in Palo Alto, Calif.
"One blockbuster invention is better than all of the evolutionary, or tweaked, inventions," says a soft-spoken Mr. Hyatt.
He cites his latest patent for accelerating chips with dynamic-random-access memory. He came up with the process because he could not afford the speedier static-random-access memories.
"In a big company environment, there would not be that interest," Mr. Hyatt says, because the company would simply buy the more expensive chips and charge the extra to the customer.
But Mr. Hyatt's critics say his microprocessor patent makes little contribution to new technology. The idea of the microprocessor -- integrating the functions of the central processing unit of a computer onto a single chip -- was "obvious," says Frederico Faggin, a member of the Intel team originally credited with inventing the microprocessor.
Because Mr. Hyatt's patented microprocessor remained a paper project, "it's really an empty patent," says Mr. Faggin.
Mr. Hyatt has been working on a concept for a futuristic computer he calls PC21. While contemporary systems require humans to become computer literate, the 21st century computer will become "human literate," Mr. Hyatt says.
But don't expect to hear any details before the stamp is on the patent this time. Mr. Hyatt says he's learned his lesson.
"New patents will get out into the public domain when the patent is issued," he says.