Between potential success and commercial failure

By David Schrieberg

Everyone says Robert Waymouth is going to get rich. Why shouldn’t 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. “It’s a little bit scary,” the baby-faced, 37-year-old scientist giggles. “So far, it’s got everything going for it. I think it’s 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 he’d get rich.

Hellman did not. Waymouth may. One scientist’s commercial failure and another’s 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.

Waymouth/Hellman (Plain text)

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