A Wild Ride with George Gerpheide
When creativity and epochal intellect intersect
In my last column in Scientific Computing, I introduced you to George Gerpheide, the father of the touchpad. My interview with my old high school friend spanned several months before and after meeting him, for the first time in 36 years, at a Mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs.
When I finally compiled all of my material from the interview, I sat back in my office staring at more than 10,000 words, and struggled for a game plan to distill them
down into a manageable number, or say “to hell with it” and just write a book. If you didn’t catch part 1 of this piece, please visit the link that appears at the top and bottom of this article and read through it, as George’s background, described in the first installment, is integral to this two-part interview as a whole.
Because our Web page is not subjected to the same space constraints as our printed edition, this Web-exclusive version of the interview is a full scale, in-depth examination of the man, the technological miracle that sits beneath your laptop’s keyboard, and all of the technical and business challenges that stood in his way as he brought the touchpad to market. We also examine Dr. Gerpheide’s plans for the future, and even delve into advanced theory as to how snowboarders and skiers can peacefully coexist.
A letter bomb
It’s pertinent to know how the idea to interview Dr. Gerpheide came to pass. I am well-known for sending “Randy’s Letter Bombs,” which are notes out-of-the-blue to long-lost acquaintances. Because I sleep only five or so hours a night, I mentally compose the outlines for most of my columns late at night as I await The Sandman. One such night, George’s name just popped into my head. George and I had met during my junior year at Kalamazoo Central High School, and we shared a love for computers, explosives and rock music. I used to bump into George’s father at the Kalamazoo YMCA where I played paddleball or swam, and we’d chat now and then about how George was doing. I lost track of George’s father about the time George was taking a semester off at MIT to ski the steep and deep slopes outside of Salt Lake City.
As I lay in bed, I contemplated that someone with George’s prodigious abilities couldn’t be invisible. I assumed that, horrific ski accident notwithstanding, he’d probably show up somewhere on the Internet, but anything could have happened in the 36 years since I last saw him. I went downstairs and checked out my high school yearbook from my junior year. In the back, I found a note from George:
Randy — It’s been a gas cruising down to the Admin Building1 every day. If you get into computers the way you’re into chemistry, I know you’ll go a long way. Watch that thermite2 though. Good luck at CHS next year, hope to see ya next summer — George
On to Google … To my astonishment, when I rapped in “George Gerpheide,” I was blasted with a plethora of technical references to the touchpad, and it quickly became obvious that George hadn’t wasted his life, or smacked a tree skiing … at least not lethally. I looked up the company he founded, Cirque, and called them, but was curtly brushed off with “he doesn’t work here any more.”
I thought to myself, “Hell no, he doesn’t. If I’d invented the touchpad it would be ‘adios amigos’ for me as well.”
Well, a little more digging revealed an e-mail address, and off went the letter bomb in mid-January of 2007. Within a few days, I received this note:
Hi Randy, It’s been a long time. Didn’t we spend a lot of time listening to The Doors in your basement? A little fuzzy these days… /george
A series of notes followed, and I mentioned I thought he’d be a great topic for a Scientific Computing column. He said he hadn’t actually had the desire to do interviews since selling his company a few years back, but he’d be up for it. We traded many more notes, and agreed to meet in Colorado Springs a few months ago.
As I waited in the restaurant wondering if I’d recognize him, in walked George, his characteristic white-blond hair was bridled in a long ponytail, and a beautiful dark-haired lady was at his side. George introduced me to his fiancée, Kay, who endured the longer-than-expected interview with grace and charm. I guessed that she’d likely be a pretty good interview herself.
It was one of those cases where we pretty much picked up where we left off, which was the end of the summer of 1971 when George left for MIT. Within moments, we were so engrossed in conversation that we didn’t even look at the menu for an hour, fending off the server a dozen times. Four hours later, we finally made our way out of the restaurant and pondered linking up for some skiing the next time I was in Utah.
As a last thought before launching into the dialogue … Just before the 1972 Olympics, I went to see Indiana University swim against Michigan State in East Lansing. I was a competitive swimmer since the time I was eight, through the Master’s Nationals in 1988, and I had a friend who was on IU’s team. He took me down on the deck to meet Mark Spitz, and IU’s legendary coach, Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman.
Now, Doc was one of the most famous coaches in the history of the sport at the time, and we chatted about a phenomenal distance swimmer on IU’s team, John Kinsella. So fast was the big, muscular Kinsella that, as a high school student in Hinsdale, IL, he set world records for the 400- and 1500-meter freestyle events, and set American records for the 200-, 500- and 1650-yard events. In fact, he set the American record for the 500-yard freestyle as a split on the way out to his 1650 American record. He also won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics at 16, and a gold at 20 in the “Spitz Olympics” of 1972. In high school, he broke Spitz’ national record for the 400-yard free by six seconds!
I asked Doc Counsilman about Kinsella, and he wistfully shook his head as he looked down the bench towards him. He turned to me and said, “You know, he has that rare combination of ability and desire.”
That’s the way I feel about George, especially after our interview. It begs mentioning that as “abnormal” as George is in terms of his own ability and desire, his outward countenance is one of complete normalcy. He doesn’t sit there sketching Schrödinger’s Equation on a napkin; he looks you in the eye and chats with humor and wit, and modesty. A telling example of the latter comes late in the interview when I ask him at what point did he realize that he could do things other people couldn’t. His response stunned me a bit, and is quite remarkable in that he never considered the question was about his turbocharged technical achievements, and instead he responded that he realized he could ski deep powder better than most. You gotta love it.
So, away we go! Have fun as we go down the double black diamond slope of entrepreneurialism, hard-core business negotiations, and raw tenacity that brought that little gray pad to your laptop.
The creative process
RH: So, was there a moment when you held a mouse in your hand and said, “this sucks”? GG: Yes. It was about 20 years ago, and I spent a lot of time at the keyboard of IBM PC equipment. Remember that, back then, almost all IBM PCs used DOS with no mouse. I was a proficient “touch typist” as it was called, and my hands naturally stayed on the keyboard “home row.” Suddenly, a new project put me into the Apple Macintosh world, which depended heavily on the mouse. The elegance of the Apple approach was clear, and I could see it was the future of computer user interfaces. But I was annoyed every time I had to reach away from the keyboard to use the mouse and, afterwards, relocate home row. Thinking of myself as a creative technical guy I thought, “Why can’t I simply whip up some kind of finger touch pad that could be right there on the keyboard, so my hands don’t have to move so much?”
RH: Can you describe the creative process in terms of getting from this problem to a solution? How did the spark of “hey, a touchpad would be cool” come about?
GG: My vision was simple: gliding a finger across a smooth, elegantly simple, hard and durable surface. It didn’t turn out to be something I could just “whip up”! My first prototype was based on an early version of the touch technology now common in PDAs, such as Palm Pilot. It worked ok with a stylus but, with finger tip, one had to press too hard, causing jerky uncomfortable cursor motion. Besides, that kind of technology was soft and easily damaged. Obviously, that prototype was a failure. Well, after that I started numbering my prototypes, calling them “Cat 1,” Cat 2,” etcetera (a play against the mouse). I tried all kinds of technologies without success, sometimes getting really discouraged and leaving it for months at a time. Finally, after several years, I had “Cat 19” that worked! Even at that stage, technology refinements were needed and many Cat prototypes followed. Still to come was the tremendous task of reducing a large box full of power-hungry circuits into a single low-cost mixed-signal integrated circuit.
RH: What was harder, the refinement of the technology or the eventual marketing of the solution?
GG: Neither was a walk in the park. There were many moments in both processes where I couldn’t see how to go on.
RH: It sounds like ‘the HP story,’ in that you had some people working in your basement on this thing. Did they always have faith you’d bring this thing home?
GG: As an aside, note that HP was a “garage startup” in sunny California, while my Utah location was rather snowy in winter necessitating a “basement startup.” Putting on my more serious business strategist’s hat, let me comment that there are two basic technology startup strategies.
One is the VC (venture capital) startup. In the classic case, a sharp entrepreneur or technologist — usually with a successful track record — has a great idea. He/she writes a plan to create the technology and a growing, profitable business. A VC is impressed by the entrepreneur and his/her plan and puts in $2 million; and the entrepreneur brings a talented team on-board focused to hit milestones of the plan before burning through the cash. The VC often helps locate proven team members and valuable strategic partners. On the downside, commonly, significant schedule problems lead to either writing off the venture as a failure, or going back to the well for an unplanned “haircut” funding round with greatly reduced equity valuation for the founding entrepreneur.
I followed the other startup strategy — organic growth. I completely self-funded development until the technology was patentable. In the beginning, money came from my “day job” as a consultant, while at night I put my own sweat into developing the technology, assisted by a few student helpers who I hired part-time. Later, with a few more employees, we often worked on consulting projects to bring in cash. Although, as my excitement pushed “Cat” to higher priority, I had to start burning through my savings. All this time, we were working in my basement, on desks made from doors laid over file cabinets and wooden crates. Overhead was non-existent, and cash burn rate was minimal.
RH: In retrospect, which of the two approaches is better?
GG: The VC strategy is to shoot for the moon, or crash and burn. It adds a lot of value that can lead to quicker development, explosive commercial growth and greater ultimate rewards — for example, Google. However, if the schedule of either technology or business development is highly uncertain, the organic strategy has much less risk for the entrepreneur and its low cash burn rate enables flexibility to keep going in the event of major schedule surprises. Doubtless, a VC strategy with a plan for, say, Cat 3 development success would have failed in my case.
On a related front, I’d like to put in a plug for the “independent inventor,” in contrast to “organizational R&D.” There is a need for both. In the nineteenth century, many great discoveries came from gentleman scientists who were independently wealthy and pursued science in their own labs for their own curiosity. Today, “big science” and funded R&D seem the norms. Truly, many endeavors are too big for individual sponsorship, but some are suitable. Efficiency is much higher when one doesn’t need to support overhead, write proposals, publish papers or meet no-longer-appropriate schedules. And, while honest discussion and collaboration with peers is certainly valuable, pressure from “standard wisdom” of the field can stifle advancement.
RH: How tough was it for a person who spent his whole life in the arcane world of deep technology to suddenly have to develop a corporate structure with payroll, benefits, hiring and firing? Was that something you enjoyed?
GG: Prior to Cirque,3 I spent a decade working in small technology startup environments, so I had a healthy appreciation of their business issues. As far as the administrative issues, my wife K.C. was an MBA. and she kept the books and office under control in the early days; later there was a hired office manager. To the extent that administrative issues were a part of transforming a technology into a profitable commercial venture, yes I did enjoy them — except firing — that’s a ‘do your best to get through it’ thing for almost everyone.
A critical turning point
Here’s an interesting story about a critical point along the path to our success that could have easily gone the wrong way. Most of my savings had been spent on development. I’d seen almost every laptop PC maker without landing urgently-needed cash investment, and had just dissolved a promising arrangement with a keyboard maker due to their change of heart.
Suddenly I had an opportunity to show my prototype Cat 20 to a forward-thinking computer maker, so I flew to meet them, and they seemed interested. A few days later I got a call from David Levy, their youthful project manager, asking me to fly back out and make another presentation for senior company officials who couldn’t attend the first meeting. I said, “David, thanks, but that last trip drained my bank account, and if your company is truly interested, I ask them to show it by paying for my airline ticket.”
David replied that they hadn’t established a formal project yet, so the paperwork to get a check cut could take weeks. Then he did a most extraordinary thing. He sent me his personal check to cover my airline ticket! I made the visit, and we ended up with a pivotal relationship with that company. I don’t know if we would have succeeded without David’s personal action.
RH: When you got to the point of having a working touchpad in hand, you suddenly had to become a sales and marketing director, and you had to develop a healthy competitive demand for the touchpad by several companies. How the hell does someone develop that skill? There’s no book out there entitled Idiot’s Guide to Creating Competitive Demand for New Technology.
GG: Luckily, I wasn’t in it alone. After Cat 20 was developed and I felt confident I had something, Jim O’Callaghan co-founded Cirque Corporation with me. Jim already had a strong business background in the tech industry, and had just received his MBA with a bent for sales and marketing. The personal force Jim brought was critical to Cirque’s success. And he had strong market forces to work with — increasing use of Microsoft Windows, a trend toward more laptop PCs, and the primary cursor-control solution for laptop PCs being generally unreliable pea-to-marble-sized trackballs. We were both passionate that what we were doing satisfied a critical need for the industry, and that passion comes across importantly to the market.
A challenge was that, for a while, laptop PC makers thought the trackball solution was okay for the small number of customers who used Windows, and they were hesitant be early adopters of a brand-new technology like our touchpad. We overcame that challenge with a dual OEM (i.e., laptop PC makers and [in addition, a] retail strategy). Thanks to initial urging by Larry Holmstrom,4 who was an early mentor and critical in getting our first outside investment, we brought our first retail touch pad product to market in April 1994. It was a touch pad enclosed in a plastic case about the size of a deck of cards, with a cord that plugged into the port on your PC. It was an alternative to the mouse, with which many still struggled. Initially we sold by word-of-mouth, and individuals ordered by telephone call to our office manager. The novelty of the product really caught the imagination of the market and media. By the end of the year, we were one of six on the cover of PC Magazine‘s “Best Products of the Year” issue.
Thanks to Jim’s tremendous sales skills, we were soon carried by shops from Fry’s to CompUSA to Sam’s Club. This retail exposure quickly gave the market experience with our technology, and was critical to the OEM customers getting comfort to adopt our new technology and throw out their trackballs.
The early years
RH: Okay, let’s return to your roots for a bit. When I met you, there were some crazed alumni at Kalamazoo Central High School, like Dick Boyak who developed his own scuba tank with a pneumatic spear gun attachment. Did you hang out with guys who were inventors like yourself?
GG: In junior high and high school, my brother John and I were always coming up with things: wiring our clubhouse and installing a telegraph; an early digital computer that proved too ambitious (before integrated circuits); robots made from plywood and Erector sets; casting sand candles and tie-dye clothes (this was the sixties) and, with Dick, we made all kinds of fireworks, rockets, thermite flares, etcetera. At an early age, mom gave us cans from the kitchen that we fashioned into play spaceships. Dad’s background was engineering, and he taught me to build things: balsa model airplanes, a model train set, and a hand-ground telescope mirror are some of the projects I fondly remember. After graduating from college, I was involved in a lot of startup companies, and I was around invention there, but I think my early years had greater influence.
RH: You kept under the radar for the most part in high school. You could have taught the computer science class we were in, but you never tried to show up the teacher and just kept your head down. Weren’t you ever tempted to just kick everybody’s ass to the curb academically? How is it you could resist the temptation to be more visible? High school is a time of insecurity and rites of passage for most 17-year-olds.
GG: School was always easy for me, and I seemed to have a knack for guessing the right answers on test, but my competition was to get that 100 percent. I didn’t have much sense of competing against the other kids. I wish I knew exactly how my parents and teachers instilled this. I guess I just wanted to get things right, and dad was a proponent of doing things the “right” way. “Better to do something right once, than wrong twice” was a family saying. Mom pushed me to persevere. Both attributes were critical for the touch pad, and I thank them immensely.
RH: Was there ever a time that you came to the realization that you simply could do things other people couldn’t?
GG: For a while, I could ski the “deep and steep” powder at Snowbird better than most. Now with wide skis and the extreme skiing population, many others have advanced while I might be slowing down a bit.
RH: The world is full of good students. What differentiates a good student from an innovator?
GG: Passion to create, without a teacher or parent keeping you on track. The perseverance to push through messy real-world problems that don’t simplify to clean textbook examples. People issues that must be appreciated and solved — that is critical to achieving anything significant.
RH: What other schools were in your sights besides MIT? Why did you settle on MIT?
GG: Caltech and the University of Michigan also accepted me and, in the end, I chose MIT because my father had attended, and he recommended it in a low-key way.
RH: You mentioned your parents watched you take off a semester right smack in the middle of MIT to go skiing, and they were silently fearful that perhaps you’d become a ski bum and never return. Were you close to doing that?
GG: They say that the function of planning out the future and visualizing consequences of actions is localized to a particular region in the brain’s fore. This region doesn’t get fully developed until an individual reaches his mid-twenties, and explains why teenagers (myself included) often make choices that seem half-witted — because they are playing with less than the proverbial full deck! I’m glad I finished MIT instead of becoming a ski bum.
RH: I never got the impression that your parents had to drive you and your brother (John). Were they hands-off when it came to school?
GG: Of course, teenagers aren’t any good at noticing what parents do for them, and I can’t myself recall much guidance they gave about school. For some reason, I just liked to do a good job at it.
RH: Describe your love for skiing. How much did the short drive from school to voluminous dry powder affect your choices of schools to get your Ph.D.?
GG: My “winter in Utah”5had already shown me the spectacular terrain and many wonderful powder days. It was actually the following year, on a January ski trip to Utah, that I met with Dave
Evans, who was chairman of the Computer Science department. He had built a team at the University of Utah that went on to really impact the world of computer graphics, including Alan Kay (developed concept of GUI at Xerox PARC, later used by Apple), Alan Ashton (founder of WordPerfect), John Warnock (founder of Adobe), Ed Catmull (cofounder of Pixar), and Jim Clark (founder Silicon Graphics, Netscape) among other greats. Needless to say, Dave’s grad school invitation coupled with Utah snow carried the day.
RH: I touched base with a mutual acquaintance of ours who remembered the wild boys of Snowbird, including you. He remembered you and some of your friends as “extremely strong skiers, black diamond boys.” How crazy were you?
GG: I was at Solitude skiing in unfamiliar territory with about a foot of new powder under bluebird skies. Apparently, I got carried away with the beauty of the moment, because I somehow skied right off a cliff and one of those hard-as-iron hundreds-of-years-old tree branches about six inches in diameter caught me under the chin as I was going through the air. It laid me out pretty well. I was out for a few moments, and then, fortunately, friends helped me ski back to the base and took me to the hospital.
RH: You have a family now, do you still sail off blind cliffs in the back bowls of Utah’s finest?
GG: No cliffs!
RH: You mentioned you tried snowboarding but didn’t like it so much. What advice do you have for skiers who are thinking about the switch?
GG: Snowboarding is relatively easy for a strong skier, but the falls are very painful, especially on the flats, because both feet are fixed to the board so you can’t step out to break your fall…at all. Go on a day with soft snow, particularly if you’re older than 16.
RH: One last ski question. Few resorts in the U.S. ban boarders, but Deer Valley is one of them. What’s your feeling about sharing the slopes with boarders?
GG: By the way, Alta also is closed to boards. I love Deer Valley for its grooming and great food; I don’t miss the riders. Skiers and riders have different styles — due, for example, to riders having a blind back-side, different demographics, a different ability to walk across flats or uphill traverses, and tendency to sideslip steep pitches. There is collision danger from either style not anticipating the path of the other, or where they might stop.
Space technology and other exploits
RH: All right, back to technology. How did you get involved in the Space Shuttle Challenger program for an experiment while you were at Utah?
GG: Space travel and technology has always interested me. Some folks I knew at Utah State University purchased a GetAway Special experiment canister, and invited me to develop an experiment for one of its six sections. I became an adjunct professor at the University of Utah and put together a team of Mechanical Engineering students needing a senior project. We collaborated with Dr. Kay Ely, who was an expert in protein crystallization for X-ray diffraction studies to determine molecular structure. The students built a home-brew experiment on a shoe string to test a hypothesis that large molecular weight proteins might crystallize in the micro-gravity of an orbiting Space Shuttle, even though they wouldn’t in the gravitational stress on earth. Anti-climactically, a failure in the canister power supply prevented our experiment from turning on.
RH: You jumped around the world of technology quite a bit. And some derivative of your Par-T-Golf golf simulator is likely how I got conned into buying a new driver. How are you able to make these radical shifts in direction? Wouldn’t the safe route to be to stay within one technological sector?
GG: Understanding new fields and the business opportunities within them is something that stimulates me, and that I achieve relatively quickly. It keeps me fresh. And learning in one field often has application to another that hasn’t been already appreciated.
RH: Okay, with the disclaimer that I know you’re quite modest, I have to ask. How does it feel to know that something you invented changed the face of computing technology? Whenever you spot someone opening a laptop, do you feel a sense of pride?
GG: Yes, there is some sense of pride, and feeling of luck and thankfulness to all the people who helped along the way. I’m lucky that my creation is easily visible to my family, friends or anyone. Many people put in years of great work to create a valuable innovation, but it ends up buried, invisible inside a complex system.
RH: You’re on a plane, maybe after a successful day, maybe knocked back a pair of beers. Someone is working on a laptop. Have you ever been tempted to tap them on the shoulder, point to the touchpad, and just nod your head and say, “you’re welcome”?
GG: (laughs) Well, I’ve held back so far!
The next big challenge
RH: You could sit back on your laurels and be quite content to just close the book on your career, pour a glass of wine and say to yourself, ‘George, a job well done. Now it’s time to ski.’ But you seem restless to solve the next big problem out there. Somewhere, there’s a company, a foundation, a group of creative students, who has a complex problem that needs your spark, but also needs those hard-won skills in generating interest, investors and buyers. Is it fair to say you’re looking for the next big challenge?
GG: My good friend Mr. Yuichiro Miura [The Man Who Skied Down Everest] 6 says that challenge is what keeps us young and healthy. He should know. In 2003, he climbed Mt. Everest at the age of 70, and his father was still skiing 100 days per season at the ripe age of 101! Neither sat back on their laurels. And the moral of this little comment is echoed around us from the micro to the macro: Sitting back while skiing leads to loss of flexibility, and a fall; Civilizations without challenges become weak and decadent.
I, too, am seeking new challenges where I can make a difference and further my mission of creating… to move the world forward. Entrepreneurs often have a business idea, without understanding the intellectual property landscape (i.e., patents, trademarks, etcetera), the technical challenges and how they can be overcome, or seeing the opportunities in technically adjacent areas. They may have technical skills, but are stalled out identifying and honing their value proposition, putting together a cogent business plan, raising investment, finding strategic partners, achieving operating profits, or preparing an exit strategy. My strength is finding and adding missing pieces to create a profitable venture.
RH: What fields are you interested in now? You mentioned that you were starting to cast an eye toward geothermal energy. What are the problems in that field requiring a unique solution?
GG: Energy problems are, on the one hand, critically important and, on the other hand, surrounded by hype. I feel tremendous urgency to find alternatives to fossil fuels that make hard-headed economic sense.
One area that catches my eye is low delta-T generation of electricity using Stirling or thermo-acoustic engines and, inversely, cooling. This area has applications ranging from geothermal electricity generation to capturing wasted (free) industrial process heat to cryo-cooling for HTS (high temperature superconductors) to electricity and refrigeration needs in third-world villages.
Another, longer range, is tapping the geothermal energy of the earth’s core through enhanced, deep, dry wells. This opportunity was highlighted in a recent MIT-led study because it has potential to provide a significant fraction of base-load energy needs with minimal environmental footprint. There are many developments required to get to this potential: well drilling and instrumentation technologies to name a couple. Fortuitously, these technologies can have application to the oil patch along the way.
RH: I lied earlier about the last ski question. We’re on top of the 2008 ski season. How excited are you to stomp into the bindings?
GG: Alta got a pretty good dump last weekend and, with one more, I’m planning to boot-pack up a few thousand vertical feet and get in some early turns!
1. We had to generate instructions on punch cards and drive to the Kalamazoo Public Schools administration building to compile and run them.
2. This was in reference to “an incident” whereby someone with a dark sense of humor (heh, heh) used thermite to weld together the chain to the teacher’s parking lot once school had started, thus trapping the teachers in the lot.
3. Cirque Corporation is the company Gerpheide co-founded for producing the touchpad.
4. Larry Holmstrom is a well-known Salt Lake technologist who has held numerous positions in product development for companies such as Novell, Iomega, and IBM.
5. Refers to Gerpheide taking a semester off his junior year at MIT to become a ski bum in Utah.
6. Editor’s note: The 1975 documentary about Miura won the Academy Award.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.