By David Schrieberg
veryone says Robert Waymouth is going to get rich. Why shouldnt he? Not
long ago, the Stanford chemist and a graduate student accidentally
invented a revolutionary, rubbery plastic. Excited industry partners now
expect the discovery to recast products ranging from disposable diapers
to car dashboards. Its a little bit scary, the baby-faced,
37-year-old scientist giggles. So far, its got everything going for
it. I think its going to happen.
Martin Hellman remembers that kind of thrill. A generation earlier, the
Stanford electrical engineer shared in technological breakthroughs he
confidently predicted would transform computer security. We were
sitting on a revolution in cryptography, Hellman, now emeritus,
recalls. I said that this should be in every home, every telephone,
every personal computer. Everyone told Hellman hed get rich.
Hellman did not. Waymouth may. One scientists commercial failure and
anothers potential success show how amazing discoveries may pay
something or nothing for reasons
unrelated to the quality or import of the actual
invention. Too often, they are subject to luck, marketplace
complications, timing and human folly.
Encryption existed but was of little commercial use before Hellman and
three Stanford colleagues began their work in the field in the 1970s.
They solved two of the nagging problems that kept computer-based
commerce from growing. With their first discovery, computers can talk
securely to each other without being overheard by a third party. They
followed with digital signatures that allow contracts to be made via
computer and legally verifiable later if disputes arise. Together, their
inventions cleared the electronic highway for commerce credit
card purchases via the Internet, for example and helped spark the
explosive growth in the Internet itself.