Corliss Orville Burandt (Photo: © Harry Goldstein)
Harry Goldstein of IEEE Spectrum Radio offers a reporter’s notebook on Corliss Orville Burandt, a man who claims to have invented the device that makes hybrid auto engines work. But Burandt lost his job, his home, his family and his mind when the patent slipped out of his hands and into the public domain.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Some people revel in their work, while others struggle just to show up each day. Some prosper in their careers while others end up broken-spirited and bankrupt. IEEE Spectrum’s Harry Goldstein met a man who loved his work and invented a way to make a better car, but took a wrong turn on the road to success.
[CAR DOOR SLAMS, AIR BLOWING FROM HEATER; “Ah, the heater”]
GOLDSTEIN: You’ve never heard of Corliss Orville Burandt. I hadn’t either, until someone slapped a ten page fax down on my desk that Burandt – or Cob, as he calls himself – sent me about the flood of hybrid electric cars onto the world market.
Cob claimed to have invented and patented a way of using a sensor inside a cylinder of a car engine to optimize how air and fuel mix during combustion. He claims almost all hybrid cars on the market are using a version of his invention. But Cob didn’t get rich off his patent. Instead, he lost his house, his wife, and his mind.
[MUSIC: Radiohead “A Wolf At The Door” from ‘Hail To The Thief’ (Capitol – 2003)]
GOLDSTEIN: Somehow, through years of homelessness, Cob and some well-meaning friends have preserved a prototype of his invention. It sits in the trunk of a sky blue 1965 Corvair in an auto shop in the Minneapolis suburb of Ham Lake. My friend Jon Zurn drove me out there to meet Cob and see the Corvair. The day was blindingly bright and frigid.
[RADIO WEATHER REPORT]
GOLDSTEIN: I explained to John that Cob’s story serves as a warning to all inventors who exchange rights to their patents in return for venture capital to bring those inventions to market. Cob thought he was on his way to easy street when, in 2002, he discovered that Honda’s Intelligent VTec engine used technology similar to that described in his U.S. Patent number 4961406. Issued on October 9, 1990, this patent covers a, quote, “Method and Device for optimizing the air/fuel mixture burn rate of internal combustion engines.”
GOLDSTEIN: So you know Cob’s, did you get Cob’s name?
ZURN: Corliss Orville Burandt.
GOLDSTEIN: Corliss Orville Burandt. Apparently a direct descendant of –
ZURN: Mr. Corliss?
GOLDSTEIN: [Laughs] Mr. Corliss. Some very famous steam engine inventor.
ZURN: He made it efficient.
GOLDSTEIN: He made it efficient. And that’s what we want to do today.
[MUSIC: Idaho "Levitate, Part 2" from ‘Levitate’ (Idaho Music – 2001)]
GOLDSTEIN: With this patent in hand, Cob thought he could force the world’s largest carmakers to pay him royalties on an idea he believed they were clearly using. But there was a problem. A big one. Cob didn’t own the patent.
Not only that, the company to which Cob had assigned ownership, Investment Rarities Inc. of Minneapolis, had failed to pay the U.S. Patent office the maintenance fees due on all 12 of the patents Burandt had garnered over the course of a decade. So, Cob’s invention slipped into the public domain. Today, anyone can use it for free.
By the time I finished telling John the particulars, we had arrived at our destination, Bendsten’s Transmission Center.
[CAR DOOR SLAMS, CRUNCHING THROUGH SNOW]
GOLDSTEIN: Wow, there’re a lot of trucks around here. Don’t see anyone here. Hi! I’m here to see Cob.
GOLDSTEIN: We entered a cramped wood-paneled office and were greeted by the office manager, who fetched Cob from the garage.
GOLDSTEIN & ZURN: Hi. How you doing?
BURANDT: Hi. John, pleased to meet you.
GOLDSTEIN: Well groomed, dressed in a black leather vest and black jeans, with piercing grey eyes that would occasionally flutter shut as if he were about to fall asleep, Cob greeted us with a hearty handshake. And immediately launched into his story. His dream was to have car engines communicate with satellites that would calibrate the engine to operate at optimum efficiency depending on where you were driving in the U.S.
[MUSIC: Tom Vek "Cover" from ‘We have Sound’ (Star Time – 2005)]
GOLDSTEIN: What kind of car is it again?
BURANDT: A 1965 Corvair. Or I should say, half of a 1965 Corvair. So we cut the engine in half, and we rotated it 90 degrees, and we made an opposed push rod six cylinder into an upright three-cylinder overhead cam engine with variable compression, variable cam phasing, and variable valve vents that all can be adjusted by radio control. Because we were trying to advocate that you could reprogram things on the fly or from satellites before there were satellites. We were hitchhiking and we were going to do it off of a radio station.
[MUSIC: Secret Chiefs 3 "Welcome To The Theatron Animatronique’ from ‘Book Of Horizons’ (Mimicry - 2004)]
GOLDSTEIN: As a noisy printer churned out page after page of invoices, we stood there in the office listening to Cob, trying to get him to focus on the timeline: when he invented what, and how his whole odyssey began.
GOLDSTEIN: And what years were you showing this around?
BURANDT: Early 80’s.
GOLDSTEIN: Early 80’s. And when you say “we” who was involved in that?
BURANDT: Well, at that time we had so much money we had several professional people that would transport the car. We were dealing with presidents of companies and it was a high roller adventure. We were eating in these restaurants with Muhammad Ali and all these, you know—it was quite the roll. I was there to stay on top of technology. I wasn’t there to be worried about hotel rooms, transportation, or anything. The company said, you think variable valve timing from when you get up and you go to bed, and everything else is on us ‘cause that’s the only way we were going to get to the top.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
GOLDSTEIN: Here was a man who believed his invention could change the world for the better: cheaper, cleaner cars, a better environment, less dependence on foreign oil. The world was his oyster. He was eating in fine restaurants, talking with top executives at big automakers, and he was turning down multimillion dollar offers to develop engines for the likes of GM. All because his venture capitalist, Investment Rarities, thought it could get more.
But when its core business, gold trading, went south in the late 1980s, Investment Rarities dropped Cob and his patents. Cob recalled the grim day in 1988 when he stood between the local post office and a McDonald’s trying to decide whether to spend the only money he had left on a cheeseburger for his growling stomach, or postage for his last remaining patent.
[MUSIC: Idaho "Scrawny" from ‘Levitate’ (Idaho Music – 2001)]
BURANDT: Everybody, I mean everybody, said, walk away from it. Give it up; you’ve wasted your life over it. I said, no way, this is the control patent. Anybody who ever lands one of these mamas has got Easy Street for the rest of his life. And that’s how the…in the end, the financial…it wasn’t believable. I couldn’t tell you a story that would actually...you couldn’t put it in words how horrible the financial end of the deal was. And I rode it through and then basically nothing happened for years. Investment Rarities—basically the IRS shut them down.
GOLDSTEIN: Cob’s eyes fluttered again, and it looked as though he might break into tears at any moment. The nostalgia for what he had, and what might have been, seemed too much. He had made a huge mistake somewhere along the line, and he knew just what it was.
BURANDT: The dilemma that I got myself in is a dilemma that any engineer in the world can get it. I lost everything I owned. I lived in that car. I mean, that was my address. That’s how far I went down the tube. And there was no money to pay maintenance fees. So the Unites States government took away all 12 of my patents. Basically, I started having some stress related health problems. I’m certified crazy! I’m on SSI. Totally mentally disabled. I mean, I was declared crazy. It says right on my papers: “Obsessive compulsive behavior associated with engine patents.” It says it right on my papers, right on the deal when they went down and analyzed me.
GOLDSTEIN: Wow. Wow. Wow!
[MUSIC: The Shins “Young Pilgrims” from ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ (Sub Pop – 2003)]
BURANDT: I mean, I lost everything. I lost my house, I lost all my cars. I lost everything. I was fricking homeless. I lived in that goddamn car for awhile. I mean, how many inventors live in their prototypes? I mean, is that ridiculous or what? It was just…I ruined my family with the deal. But in terms of what happened to me: basically, I was left to rot for eight years.
GOLDSTEIN: The annals of technology are filled with stories about inventors whose epic struggles over their inventions drove them over the edge. Some, like Edwin Armstrong, inventor of FM radio, take their own lives. Others, like Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current, suffered - like Cob - from obsessive compulsive disorder. Tesla required any repeated actions in his life, such as the footsteps he took in a walk, to be divisible by three, and would keep repeating them until he arrived at the right total.
When we met with Cob, it was apparent that his obsessive-compulsions focused entirely on car engines. But beyond that, it seemed to me that some essential part of him, what some people might call a soul, I guess, was indistinguishable from his invention. He is the variable valve mechanism, and it is him. When after over an hour of conversation I asked to see the prototype, his sleepy, medicated eyes sparkled to life, and like a kid on Christmas morning, he bounded through the door leading to the garage and showed us the modified Corvair.
[MUSIC: Texas Red “Car Trouble’ from ‘Nothin’ Can Save Me Now’ (Cold Wind Records – 2004)]
[CAR ENGINE TURNING OVER]
BURANDT: Okay, now this is in economy mode, and you can listen, when we go into performance mode, you will see the idle quality deteriorate. Just to simulate that, I’ll show you what happens here if we push it all the way up.
BURANDT: Maintenance fees are a capitalist tool for driving small people out of business. And the small guy, in my opinion, is always the guy that gets his five years a hit. That’s what we’re buying—that’s what the patent deal does. The sooner we get something birthed and into the incubation period, the greater the potential to capitalize on the large-scale employment we can derive from it. So we need the guys birthing and we need to keep ‘em alive. Well, how the hell are you gonna do that? How could a state do that and get a return on their money? I think making the payment of maintenance fees and possibly the patent application costs, eligible for tax credits—probably another thing I would say on that is, I think especially things that have to do with the environment and energy. That have a social value, not just another hoola hoop but things that have a social value also.
GOLDSTEIN: All right. Well, I think we need to be getting on.
[ON THE ROAD]
GOLDSTEIN: As we drove back to Minneapolis, John and I talked about how it was appropriate somehow that we hadn’t met Cob anywhere but the garage. The garage was where Cob really lived, even when his body was sleeping somewhere else. He tries to solve the same problem over and over again: how to get control of his patents back, and that’s as far as he’ll go because what lies beyond - patent battles with some of the world’s largest corporations - is too remote a possibility even for Cob to contemplate. And surely too expensive for him to ever afford. His patents expire next year, and hope with them. And hope is the only thing that’s kept Cob’s motor running all these years.
[MUSIC: The Album Leaf “Moss Mountain” from ‘In A Safe Place’ (Sub Pop – 2004)]
GOLDSTEIN: As the frozen expanse of Great White North suburbia flashed by, the trailer parks cheek by jowl with the giant malls filled with last minute shoppers, part of me wished I’d asked Cob how he was going to spend Christmas. Another part of me couldn’t bear to know. For Living on Earth, I’m Harry Goldstein.
GELLERMAN: Harry Goldstein is a reporter for Spectrum Radio, the broadcast edition of eye–triple E --- “Spectrum” magazine. To see photos of Corliss Orville Burandt – a.ka. “COB” – and his invention - visit our website - Living on Earth dot org.
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