Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Unless you worked in the most secretive corners of the computer industry in the late 1960s, the name Gilbert Hyatt probably won’t mean much to you.
But Hyatt wants you to know his name as inventor of the microprocessor, the backbone of the technologies that all but rule our lives today: cellphones, cameras and computers.
The 76-year-old New York native has spent the past 25 years in Las Vegas, quietly inventing technologies and applying for patents from a private research lab in his home near Red Rock Canyon.
He has spent almost as much time fighting for the recognition he believes he deserves for his work on the microprocessor. Engineers and lawyers have argued his wasn’t the world’s first.
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Born in Queens in 1938, Hyatt always had an eye for engineering. His parents were Russian emigrants, and his father worked as a civil engineer.
As a child, Hyatt admired the Wright brothers and dreamed of one day inventing a world-changing device. He read Mark Twain and Zane Grey adventure stories and wanted to move west and live his own adventure.
When he was 16, his parents moved the family to Southern California, where Hyatt enrolled at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. After graduating, he attended a local community college for two years before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.
Hyatt immediately jumped into the workforce, joining Boeing as a full-time engineer developing missile systems for the military.
Not long after, he won a fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Southern California, where he earned a master’s degree in computer engineering. While taking classes, he worked part-time for the Howard Hughes Aircraft Company.
In 1968, Hyatt quit a high-paying engineering job at Teledyne Technologies, a California industrial sciences shop, to focus on building microchips.
He converted the spare bedroom of his Los Angeles house into a research laboratory under the name Micro Computer, Inc. That’s where he figured out how to build a microcomputer on a silicon chip a tenth of an inch wide.
“I hoped it would take over the field as a low-cost product,” Hyatt said.
Little did he know, his invention would lead to ongoing court battles decades later.
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Shortly after figuring out the science behind the processor, Hyatt signed contracts with Intel and Texas Instruments to build a working version of his invention. A patent attorney filed paperwork for Hyatt’s microcomputer in December 1970. Robert Noyce, one of Intel’s founders, reportedly invested in Micro Computer, Inc.
But by January 1971, Intel had developed its own microprocessor, the Intel 4004. Hyatt’s microcomputer had landed in the patent office a year earlier but Ted Hoff, then a graduate student at Stanford University working for Intel, became widely known as the father of the microprocessor.
Credit also went to Gary Boone, a Texas Instruments engineer, who also had been developing single-chip designs.
Ross Bassett, a technology historian and professor at North Carolina State University, said the microprocessor would have been developed with or without Hyatt. There’s nothing novel about having the first patent, Bassett said, because it means nothing if you don’t have money to develop a real product.
“Truth be told,” Bassett said, “if it had just been Gilbert Hyatt, the idea would have just been sitting there. It took Intel making it a part of our lives.”
As Hyatt watched major companies rake in huge profits for a technology he felt he invented, he kept busy as an aerospace consultant through the ’70s and ’80s. The Cold War was in full swing, and Hyatt made fistfuls of money developing patents — until the Soviet Union collapsed and his consulting business slowed.
Meantime, Hyatt’s fight with the patent office steadily brewed. In 1990, patent officials finally agreed that Hyatt had proven he was the first person to patent the microprocessor. The news made Hyatt millions of dollars and sent a shockwave through the computer industry.
Today at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, you can find a tome marked with Hyatt’s name and patent number 4,942,516. The number gives Hyatt credit for the “single chip integrated circuit computer architecture” he invented in 1968.
“I felt that the industry had taken my technology and, not only hadn’t rewarded me, but hadn’t given me recognition until my patents started to issue,” Hyatt said.
After winning recognition for the patent, Hyatt moved to Las Vegas on the advice of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who had recruited Hyatt to develop virtual reality technology for theater shows.
Then, in 1996, the patent office overturned parts of its decision on Hyatt’s patent. The courts didn’t like the way Hyatt’s patent described his single-chip design, but they allowed him to keep it. The patent now is expired.
Today, Hyatt’s patents remain stamped on the bottom of Sony’s Playstation game consoles and many digital cameras.
Even after the patent office sided with Hyatt, the inventor found himself wrapped in a separate court battle with California tax officials, who tried to collect on Hyatt’s multimillion-dollar earnings, despite Hyatt having moved to Nevada, where there is no income tax. Hyatt eventually sued California for invasion of privacy and won a $388 million settlement, a case that’s pending following claims the court made a mistake in its judgment.
“I don’t get angry,” Hyatt said. “I just continue with my work. America could have benefited a lot more from the technologies I wasn’t able to develop if I had been rewarded instead of suppressed.”
Today, Hyatt spends all his time in Las Vegas. Long divorced, he enjoys seeing his three children and three grandchildren when they visit from California or Texas. When he’s not poring over notes at home, he hikes at Red Rock with colleagues, talking through ideas and jotting down notes on a pad of paper he keeps tucked in his back pocket.
Hyatt is tight-lipped about everything he works on now, afraid someone will steal his ideas. He curls the pages of his notebook to conceal ideas from anyone who might sneak a peek.
“The technologies for the next 15 or 20 years are really quite spectacular,” Hyatt said. “But I’m not free to discuss them.”
Early news stories about Hyatt’s obscure career point out his quirky, private habits, such as keeping his curtains drawn and spending much of his time alone. The inventor attributes his reason for laying low to “corporate espionage.”
In total, Hyatt has patented more than 60 inventions. Going forward, he plans to focus on using his money for philanthropic purposes.
But don’t bother asking him which causes he plans to support.
“I prefer not to get into that at this time,” Hyatt said.