To the Editor

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2002

REGARDING YOUR ARTICLE ON Shuji Nakamura (in The Pulse, November 2002, his situation is not at all a new one for engineers and inventors. In the 1920s, a newly minted chemical engineer from Omaha, Nebraska, named Donald Othmer went to work for Eastman Kodak. Early in his career he developed a process that allowed the transfer of images to paper, ultimately the foundation for all those brownie cameras, not to mention the modern film industry until the advent of digital imaging.

What was Othmer's reward? Nothing, zilch, nada. As with Nakamura, he was unhappy, but in those days one didn't sue, even in the US, so Othmer took his creative genius off to the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in New York.

Over the years, Othmer invented many other things and was especially well known for the Encyclopedia of Chemistry, which he co-wrote (it's still being published). During this time, he filed for many patents, almost all prepared by himself without an attorney (a category of person he did not trust). After World War II, he was one of several experts brought to Japan to help re-start the Japanese industrial engine. He and his wife were quite fascinated with Japan, and they soon collected a small museum of Japan-related objects.

Sometime in the later 1940s, Othmer befriended another Omaha native who was just getting his start in the business world. After much agonizing, the Othmers actually invested $25,000 in a startup that this young man initiated.

At the time of his death in the late 1990s, Donald Othmer left an estate that went largely to universities and museums. His estate amounted to roughly $500 million. Of course, he had left most of his estate to his widow, who unfortunately was unable to enjoy it as she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When she passed away a year or so later, her estate totaled roughly $900 million. Most of that also went to universities, museums and her church interests.

If there is any lesson to be drawn, it is that making money from an investment may, in the end, be much more rewarding than the benefits derived from an invention. For all his creativity, Donald Othmer made virtually nothing from his inventions or patents. But his faith and trust in a kid named Warren Buffett paid off handsomely.

Of his fortune, the accumulated Japanese and Asian collection were given to the International Christian University in Mitaka, and approximately $35 million was sent to the Japan International Christian University Foundation in New York. New facilities at ICU reflect the benefits of that largesse.
Thomas T. Winant

Regarding your article on Shuji Nakamura (The Pulse, November 2002), I take the liberty of sharing some of my experience and insights with you. I spent four years as a design engineer in a Japanese company (Sumitomo Group) where they demanded a minimum of three patent applications a year from each engineer. They paid me on the order of ´500 for two of them, which were hardly worth the paper they were written on. I suppose a few bob was also spent on research and filing, and they probably never came to anything anyway. The point is, I was getting a salary to show up for work and put in a bit of thinking, so Sumitomo was investing money in me and hundreds like me so that we would make lots of patents. By a similar logic to compensating the one patent in a million that hits it big, might not the company be justified in penalizing the employees when their ideas are duds or mistakes that cost money?

At any rate, it seems like a little bit of common sense to highly reward someone "bright" enough to come up with a multimillion or billion dollar creation. One cannot be sure, but if Shuji had been given a raise in salary of tens of millions of yen and maybe even a promotion, it might have kept him on the sweet side of the company. Good business is good for everybody.

Paying ridiculous rewards such as sports star salaries has pitfalls, so my proposal for people smart enough to come up with a brilliant idea is keep your cards close to your chest until you know you are going to get what makes you happy. Undoubtedly he knew the company rules when filing his patent, so if he wasn't happy before it was a Hit, being upset after the fact shows a lack of foresight. You can never expect the company to reward you in retrospect unless you have something more to offer.

Perhaps the students consider his approach motivated by greed, but who is to know what the real story is?
Trevor Allen

Regarding your April 2001 Japan Studies article entitled More Gray Hairs Ahead?, I thank you for your informative article and its in-depth research. I also appreciate your entire publication.

I am a new master's degree student at Marylhurst University in Oregon beginning an interdisciplinary study of gerontology. I very much appreciate the ability to access (and cite with proper credit) your fine publication and Mr. William Hall's fine article.
Cathy Zimmerman

We also received some mail in response to the Viewpoint in J@pan Inc newsletter No. 199, entitled Don't Look for Quick Fix to West Coast Port Problem in US. The newsletter appears on our Web site. A sample letter follows.

The supposedly "new" technology these longshoremen are so afraid of is the lowly and ubiquitous bar code reader -- the same ones that have been used in supermarkets for 20 years as well as by Federal Express, UPS and the US Post Office to make things efficient and cost-effective.

Also, I wouldn't be too quick to shed any tears for these longshoremen, who earn anywhere from $80,000 to more than $100,000 year. And it's not from any intrinsic value they create; through the monopoly of their union, they limit the supply of workers and any type of technology that would make them even a somewhat modern industry.

The real ones that are suffering through all this are the farmers whose produce is rotting, the manufacturing line workers (who make one-third the money that the longshoremen do) and, of course, the consumers, who will pay higher prices.

I'm looking forward to advanced robotics that will someday remove these folks from being able to stop our economy for their selfish reasons.
James in San Francisco

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