Evan Koblentz

Apple challenger Klausner: Real inventor, not a troll!

By Evan Koblentz
December 04, 2007 10:15 PM EST

To be very clear: Judah Klausner, the man behind Klausner Technologies which is currently suing Apple and AT&T for supposed infringement of a voicemail patent, is not a mere troll. His geek cred: long before the iPhone, and 15 years before even the Newton, Klausner's name stood atop one of the first PDA patents -- not because he acquired it but because he helped invent it.

The patent, granted in Sep. 1978, is #4,117,542, Electronic Pocket Directory. Except for an article on my personal web site two years ago (thank you, Slashdot), Klausner's story has never been published. So here is a reprint of the story, edited for space, based on my telephone and email interviews with Klausner and his former business partner Robert Hotto in 2005.

It all started when Klausner, a music major who graduated from New York University in 1973, inspected a friend's pocket calculator one day in 1976. "I was looking at these little calcuators that were very small and had these memory buttons on them, and I didn't know what that meant," he said. His friend explained the mathematical purpose - "I thought, that's dumb, if these things are memory systems why are they so limited?" He asked various technical-minded people about the prospects for expanding a calculator's memory into more useful functions such as a datebook, but most said it wasn't possible with current technology.

Eventually someone connected Klausner with Bob Hotto, also at NYU, who was a senior and physics major. Hotto built the prototype that earned the patent. Meanwhile, Klausner's uncle was Rolodex founder Arnold Neustadter, but they only spoke about advice for conducting patent research -- it wasn't until years later that either party realized the logic of the Rolodex company transitioning its own product line from mechanical to eletronic organizers.

Klausner and Hotto licensed their design to Toshiba, but were turned down by General Instruments and Hewlett-Packard. Apple had its chance, too! Hotto recalled meeting Steve Jobs at the Trenton (N.J.) Computer Festival, but said that Jobs only wanted to talk about the Apple II and wouldn't listen to anything else. If things turned out different, Apple could have had a PDA a dozen years before the Newton was even a concept, and the companies might be allies today instead of courtroom foes.

Meanwhile, Toshiba -- fresh off its original name of "Tokyo Shibaura Electric Co." -- refreshed the patent (which they eventually bought flat-out); the new patent was #4,279,022, "Electronic calculation/memorandum apparatus." Toshiba called the commercial product the LC-836 Memo Note 30. Its primary non-calculator function was to store phone numbers and simple memos. Toshiba in turn licensed it to Tandy/Radio Shack, arriving in stores as the EC-4002 Thin Statesman LCD. It is the same size as a modern thin PDA - about 2-5/8 inches wide, 5-1/2 inches tall, and just over 1/4-inch thick. It has 30 keys, a one-line liquid-crystal display, and was designed for "always-on" mode as with a wristwatch. But there was competition: Klausner and Hotto managed to license their patent to Casio, Sharp, and Sony as well, and eventually Rolodex itself did acquire rights.

Copycat devices followed throughout the late 1970s -- Canon's Palmtronic LC Memo; Sharp's EL-8160, and Toshiba's own LC-1018MN (Memo Note 60), LC-1038MN (Memo Note II), and LC-1019MN (Memo Note III), all of which had unique features such as more memory and alternative physical designs.

So, was the LC-836 the first "real" PDA? There were earlier PDA concepts, such as George Margolin's 1974 invention of a calculator keyboard, Sam Pitroda's 1975 invention of an electronic diary, Nixdorf's LK-3000 pocket language translator, and Casio's 1976 CQ-1 calculator/calendar gadget. But the LC-836, dreamed up by Klausner and built by Hotto, was the first pocket-sized digital device on the market that could store and retrieve alphanumeric records, thereby evolving into something superior to a mere scientific calculator.