When you dial 1-800, think of Roy P. Weber


Roy P. Weber espouses the virtue of not always listening to your boss. If he had obeyed his supervisor 16 years ago, there would be no toll-free 800 phone service as we know it today.

About 21,500 times every minute, or 11 billion times this year, someone will use Mr. Weber's patented invention for 800 long-distance telephone service.

Mr. Weber, American Telephone & Telegraph's director of new services development, thrives on inventing. In addition to holding the patent for modern 800 service, this futurist tinkers with creating a complete audio-video electronic "office" that fits in your pocket and eyeglasses that help you identify people as they approach.

But his success as an inventor all started with the 800 service.

As a young member of the technical staff at AT&T; Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the mid-1970s, Mr. Weber, fresh out of graduate school, had been given a strange assignment.

AT&T; was computerizing its network, and there were a "few visionaries" who wanted to do more with the network but didn't know what, the 47-year-old computer engineer remembers. So they told him to figure out something to do with the technology.

Mr. Weber hit upon an idea: Build a computer architecture to let a company have one number that could be called by customers anywhere. At the time, the company had WATS lines -- toll-free service celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. But WATS had serious flaws. It was unreliable, had networking difficulties and took 20 phone numbers for a company to blanket the states.

He wasn't sure what people would do with a single national or global number, but he was intrigued with the idea. His computer design plans eventually would show AT&T; how to build what was then the world's largest computer system, hook up all its switching devices and data bases to allow a caller to use a single number anywhere in the United States and reach a company as easily as calling next door.

"I had an interesting experience with my immediate supervisor when I told him about this," Mr. Weber says. "He said it was a dumb idea and to go work on something else."

Instead, Mr. Weber pleaded his case with the visionaries, who recognized the possibilities. But no one -- not even Roy Weber -- had an inkling that his idea would become so integral a part of daily life.

Today, roughly 40 percent of all long-distance calls on AT&T;'s network are 800 service. In June, during the airline fare wars, that rose to more than half of all long-distance calls for the first time. More than half a million U.S. businesses use 1.3 million 800 numbers to handle calls from 64 countries.

"We've evolved this into an electronic storefront for our customers. . . . Whole businesses have been created," Mr. Weber says. "We have companies that have no stores. If the system were ever to disappear, their businesses would disappear."

He filed for the patent in 1978, and it was issued two years later. AT&T; immediately began converting its service.

Under the old system, which also used an 800 area code, phone numbers had geographic significance. That's why a company had to have so many numbers to cover the whole country. With Mr. Weber's system, the number isn't really a number but a code to the computer network. That allows a company or organization to dream up personalized and memorable numbers such as Just Justin Boots' (800) BYA-BOOT or the American Seafood Institute's (800) EAT-FISH.

"The whole world is copying that structure," Mr. Weber says. "We're at least a dozen years ahead of the Japanese."

And when the whole world uses the patented 800 computer architecture, it pays AT&T; a royalty.

The day an employee goes to work for Bell Labs, he signs over rights to all patents stemming from their work. But given the huge business generated for AT&T; and the royalties for his work, surely the company gave him something extra in his paycheck, right?

"It's made me rich in a different manner than cash in the bank," he says, sidestepping the question. Pressed, he says he was given enough to buy a car but that the car wouldn't have been a Mercedes.

His real wealth, he says, came when he was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, when his daughter took his patent to school for show-and-tell and when his son at Cornell University proudly tells friends his father invented the 800 service.

"I think it has made me very rich," he says.

He advises people to revisit ideas that didn't work the first time out.

"There's a sequence. Few things that get invented are new, they're just rediscovered at the right time." For example, the picture phone, invented but not accepted in the 1960s, is being revived today.

And he has personal proof. Mr. Weber holds the patent to a "person locator service" -- the basis for AT&T;'s 700 service, introduced earlier this year. Customers can have the same telephone numbers for life. The numbers can follow customers, whether they transfer to a new area or simply take a vacation.

"This used to blow people's minds," he says. "I used to talk to people about the Bell system stationing people at hospitals, and at birth we'd give you a [telephone] number and at death we'd take it away and give it to somebody else.

"A lot of people got really nervous about that kind of stuff."

He and a friend at Bell figured out how to establish such a system and patented it 10 years ago. Most people thought it was a joke.

Now AT&T;'s 700 service is getting customers to sign up, he says. "It's certainly not being portrayed as an at-birth and at-death service -- those stark terms. . . . There's an amazing interest in the service we just announced."

Mr. Weber spends a lot of time with customers dreaming up products.

"The customer environment is loaded with people who have visions about their industries. . . . So, we've got dozens of projects we're working on."

The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., says there is nothing better than being in a room with colleagues inventing things.

His latest pet project would take well into the next millennium to achieve: a "knobot" embedded into eyeglasses. A knobot -- short for knowledge robot -- "knows what I need to know and helps me get that information."

In this case, what Mr. Weber wants to know is people's names, since he often suffers a mental block when people come up to him. So, in the brave new world, his glasses would have cameras to help the knobot identify an approaching person. A video window on the lens would relay the information.

"It would solve my biggest problem in life," says a guy whose cheerful demeanor indicates this might, in fact, be the worst problem he faces. "I would love that."

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