IV’s Favorite Inventions: Cipher Machines

If you ever visit Intellectual Ventures’ offices, you’ll notice that a few interesting inventions make their homes in our hallways. One of these looks like a typical typewriter — in fact, you would likely pass by it without a second glance, if you noticed it at all.

IV’s Favorite Inventions: Cipher Machines

But beneath its unexceptional appearance lies a technology that is anything but ordinary. This is an example of a T-52 cipher machine.

No, we’re not talking about the villain from the Matrix movies. A cipher, more or less, is an algorithm used to encrypt a message. In order to fully appreciate the T-52, let’s take a journey through the evolution of this invention.

One of the earliest recorded ciphers is the Caesar shift cipher, which as legend has it, was used by Julius Caesar in his private messages. To illustrate this cipher’s process, let’s look at a simple message: HELLO WORLD. If the letters are shifted by one place in the alphabet, they read: GFMMP XPSME. This is a message encrypted with a Caesar shift of one place.

Fast forward to the 1460s, when Italian architect Leon Alberti came up with an idea. Why not alternate alphabets to encrypt a message? Instead of just using one alphabet, perhaps two would be better. Why not take it one step further and use several alphabets to encrypt a message? To decipher such a message, Alberti devised a disk that included two concentric copper rings, each with an alphabet printed on it. The two discs could be independently rotated so the alphabets would have relative positions to each other, with the outer ring featuring the plaintext alphabet and the inner ring representing the cipher alphabet — the alphabet you would use to write your secret message. As long as the recipient knew to shift the rings to the correct place, they would be able to decode the message.

Encryption machines continued to improve in the centuries that followed. By the World Wars, machines such as the Enigma — invented by Arthur Scherbius — were light weight, electrical, and played an important role in communications by governments and their militaries. They also spurred the creation of other inventions to aid in cracking their codes.

The cipher machine in our hallway, the T-52 Geheimschreiber, was developed by Siemens & Halske, but based largely off the Enigma concept. It was invented by August Jipp, Ehrhard Roßberg, and Eberhard Hettler in 1930. Used alongside Enigma machines, the T-52 assisted in not just static printed messages, but also in tele-printer (telex) messages. About 380 machines survived the war, including the one on display at IV’s headquarters.

Now that you know the history of cipher machines, imagine the types of messages that might have passed through their keys. While the cipher in our hallway might still look like a standard typewriter, the story behind the invention makes it one of IV’s favorites.

To learn more about inventions in history, read about one of the inventor community’s most famous code crackers: Hedy Lamarr

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Who Inspires You to Innovate?

Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. Anyone who’s tried to transform an idea into a product knows that ratio holds true for invention. While innovation may begin as a flash of genius, it takes hard work to move from idea to proof of concept to working product, and there are moments of both failing and rejoicing along the way.

Who Inspires You to Innovate?
At work in the Intellectual Ventures electronics lab.

Whether you’re a lone inventor or working at an innovative company, you can find encouragement and support in the inventor community and those who’ve survived the journey from Eureka! moment to finished product.

To fuel your innovation inspiration, heed a few words of wisdom from inventors past and present.

For more inspiring insights from the inventor community, visit Project Eureka!

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Everything Ventured, Everything Gained

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 reached the moon. 45 years ago, man took his first steps there. Today we’re reminded of how fast technology can develop in the right environment and the distance that invention can take us when inventors, investors, big and small companies, governments, universities and communities work together.

Edward Jung, IV founder and CTO, calls the Apollo program a historical example of the impact of collaborative invention:

 “The Apollo space program created a $25 billion (more than $150B in today’s dollars!) innovation economy and put a man on the moon in less than a decade — thanks to the cooperation of government and industry, the individual and the team.”

To give this accomplishment more context, travel back with us seven years before 1969 to 1962, when President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at Rice University in Houston, TX.

His main focus was to persuade Americans to support NASA's mission in the space race. At the time of his speech, no one had ever completed a spacewalk, the U.S. had only first put a man in space the previous year, and we hadn't yet fired a rocket capable of sending a mission to the moon.

Needless to say, we had a long way to go in order to reach this distant and little-known frontier. And that's where the importance of the inventive spirit kicked in. Look where it led us:

Exploration is at the heart of invention, and as venturers we're building a marketplace that will encourage even greater leaps. Learn about the modern-day challenges and opportunities made better through invention on


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What Not to Miss In the Insights Archive

We combed the IV Insights blog archive for the most read posts. From IP strategy to geek masterminds, take a look at a few reader favorites that you won’t want to miss.

What Not to Miss In the Insights Archive

The Next Age of Invention
The “lone genius” model of invention has a problem with scale. How will we solve long-term, large-scale problems? Here’s IV Founder and CTO Edward Jung on the importance of cooperation.

5 Inconvenient Truths About Patent Reform
If you listen to a rising banter of critics, you might think that patents are killing innovation. Here’s another perspective from the man who coined the term “patent troll.”

Inventions to Startups: Coffee Flour is off to the Races
Can good IP strategy spur new business? Learn how Intellectual Ventures Invention Development Fund used an IP portfolio to helped launch startup company CF Global.

Software Patents: Just Because it’s in Code Doesn’t Mean it isn’t an Invention
Within the loud and often incoherent chorus of anti-patent “reformers,’’ there’s a particularly shrill sub-group who rails against software patents. Are you among them?

10 Must Reads for Inventors
Curious about invention? Check out the list of IV’s must-reads among the inventor community.

Which Geek Mastermind Are You?
Are you more like Einstein or Tesla? Just for fun, take a quick quiz to find out which inventor you share a wavelength with.

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Defining a Disruptor

Last month, Clayton Christensen’s favored theory of disruptive innovation was ripped apart by the New Yorker, and then put back together again in Businessweek.

Defining a Disruptor

Love the term or hate it, there’s no doubt disruptors challenge the status quo. “Because it’s always been done that way,” is not in their vocabulary. They’re risk-takers and change advocates who are unafraid of the controversy and resistance stirred up by their ideas.

Being a disruptor sure can come with its fair share of misinterpretation as well. Nathan Myhrvold, our cofounder and CEO, has said, “You can’t do anything significant in life if you’re not willing to be misunderstood for some period of time.” This requires courage and a strong belief in your mission – a willingness to step into a different territory and to create something new.

In the business of invention, challenging the status quo is a necessity. At Intellectual Ventures, we’re proud to consider ourselves disruptors –  we aren’t shy about taking risks; we’ve built the invention capital market from scratch and fundamentally believe invention is the foundation for solving the world’s toughest challenges.

For more insight into just a few of the disruptors we work with, check out 700 for Science’s interview with Global Good’s Maurizio Vecchione or Nathan’s “Funding Eureka!” article in the Harvard Business Review.

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Patently False

We’ve often wondered: If “patent trolls” and the “explosion” of lawsuits are strangling innovation as some critics claim, then why are the most blazingly innovative industries also the ones with the most new patents and lawsuits?

Patently False

Take smartphones for example, one the most patent-intensive industries. There have been epic patent battles in court.

Yet the pace of smartphone innovation has been off the charts, while prices for consumers have fallen dramatically. Twenty years ago, few people had cellphones and those who did paid $1,000 for a basic model. Today, you can buy a smartphone for less than $100.

This evidence always strikes us as a clear and common-sense rebuttal to what the anti-patent crowd is saying. And now there’s rigorous new research that confirms what we’ve always believed to be true.

The study, led by Stephen Haber at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Ross Levine at the University of California’s Berkeley-Haas School of Business, compared the innovation rates of industries with their patent-intensity. You can read highlights from the report in their Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Myth of the Wicked Patent Troll”.

The bottom line: “Innovation rates have been strongest in exactly the industries that patent reform advocates claim are suffering from ‘trolls’ and a broken patent system.”

Levine and Haber are referring to the likes of software, telecommunications and media technology. Since 1992, they calculate the quality-and-inflation-adjusted price of telephone equipment has fallen at an annual rate of 6.7%. For televisions, the annual drop has 14.4%. For portable computers, it’s been 26.7%.

Haber and Levine’s larger point is that the “explosion” of litigation is a myth, and so is the harm caused by “trolls.” As historian Zorina Khan of Bowdoin College has vividly documented, we had identical surges in litigation, and almost identical debates about patents, during every other significant wave of new inventing: the telephone and telegraph; railroads; automobiles and aviation. Even vulcanized rubber for tires.

Many of America’s greatest inventors, including Thomas Edison, Charles Goodyear, the Wright Brothers, and Cyrus McCormick, were embroiled in big patent disputes. And most of the great inventors were also partly or entirely “non-practicing entities” – people who hold patents but don’t manufacture the products themselves – and might well be denounced as “trolls” in today’s lexicon.

The “golden age” of inventing in the 19th Century saw brutal patent wars. George Campbell Carson’s patents for steel smelting were held to be worth $260 million in damages. Adjusted for inflation, that would be many times more expensive than even the most costly patent battles of today. 

Somehow, we not only survived those early patent wars but produced wave after wave of new technology that improved lives around the world at just about every income level.

No matter what side of the fence you’re on, litigation is costly and distracting. But advances in technology go hand-in-hand with disputes over inventorship and ownership. As Haber and Levine point out, an uptick in lawsuits isn’t necessarily a sign of dysfunction.

“It might instead reflect a healthy, dynamic economy,’’ they write. “Rapid technological advances have spurred more innovation and patents, and courts are now clarifying the nature and boundaries of intellectual property and contract rights.”

That’s a good thing. It means that patented inventions are worth fighting for, and that independent inventors, small businesses, and corporations don’t have to accept someone using their intellectual property without permission.

In fact, Haber and Levine argue that “Big [Corporate] Money” is behind today’s attack on “trolls.”   

“Many patent-intensive products – the smartphone in your pocket, the laptop computer in your briefcase – are produced by corporations that license many patents,” they write. “These corporations can make higher profits the less they pay to use patented technology they do not own, and higher profits still by paying nothing at all.”

That’s an important point for Congress to remember the next time a herd of lobbyists claims the patent system needs “reform.” 

“When policy makers consider reforming the patent system,” Haber and Levine warn, “they should not rely on often-repeated, but never substantiated, claims that patent trolls and lawsuits stymie innovation… They should demand robust evidence that the current system is slowing down innovation. It does not exist.”

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Staff Spotlight: IV Patent Acquisitions

Intellectual Ventures (IV) has one of the largest patent portfolios in the world, which we’ve built up through our own in-house invention process, a worldwide network of inventors, and by working closely with some of the most inventive individuals, startups, and companies in the world.

Staff Spotlight: IV Patent Acquisitions

To help explain how we have developed such a diverse patent portfolio, we asked Troy Niehaus, director of acquisitions at IV, how a 22-year career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a decade of coaching baseball and softball has helped shape his search across a huge range of technologies to find and purchase the next-generation of inventions for IV customers.

How did you find your way to Intellectual Ventures?

My journey to IV has been unique. I spent time in the military when I was younger and eventually left in order to enter the world of sales. For about 12 years, I managed sales and business development for a variety of companies, and also ran a company for a period of time.

Eventually, I became focused on IP, which then led me to patents. If you are in the world of patents, IV is going to be on your radar, and I became very interested. In general, I wanted to be working at IV because it was a mixture of taking on different challenges, new business opportunities, and being actively involved in the patent and IP space.

At IV, my main role is to develop and maintain relationships with companies who might be interested in selling patents. I have the opportunity to talk with a wide span of people in a variety of different markets, which I find very interesting.

What's the most interesting project you've worked on at IV?

The most interesting project I have worked on is a patent acquisition deal with a startup company. It’s rare for startups to sell their IP. However, through a relationship with IV, this startup is able to capitalize on their existing inventions to continue inventing. This project has been exciting because of the potential of an ongoing relationship that could greatly benefit this startup. 

How do you explain IV to people outside of the company?

I typically say that IV is like a venture capital firm, but rather than investing in companies, we invest in patents. We buy, license, and sell patents. Additionally, we are creating a marketplace for invention where we are able to acquire technologies and give capital to inventors so they can continue developing their ideas. We are able to license these patents and technologies to major corporations who need invention rights. IV facilitates the marketplace for invention.

Do you ever think about the impact that you're making on future technologies?

It is one of the main things I love about my job. You never know what we might buy that could be extremely valuable for the company and the next big thing on the market. A lot of my job is evaluating all types of technology so we can see what might support building this marketplace for invention. Whether we are acquiring and licensing, or partnering with another business unit, the opportunities for invention are unlimited.

Learn more about the people that make IV so unique, or how you can sell your patents to IV here.

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Patriotic and Peculiar Fourth of July Inventions

Here at the Intellectual Ventures headquarters in Washington state, we’re raising our stars and stripes this Independence Day to salute our nation’s innovative spirit. American inventors have done extraordinary things; they gave us the telephone, the assembly line, and the polio vaccine. It’s also important to honor the inventors who don’t have a dedicated chapter in the American history books. Their inventions may not be well known, but they are just as extraordinary in their creativity.

Patriotic and Peculiar Fourth of July Inventions

In addition to saluting America’s famed inventors, let’s recognize a few patriotic and peculiar inventions you might see this Fourth of July weekend.

Backyard BBQ Inventions

No one knows who invented the first barbeque. There are stories that Henry Ford invented the first charcoal briquette in 1920 with Thomas Edison's help; however, a patented designed filed by Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania trumps Ford’s claim.

Design for Fuel

Do you enjoy classic hotdogs and cheeseburgers on July 4, or are you willing to get inventive with your barbeque recipes? IV Founder and CEO Nathan Myhrvold won 1991's World Championship of Barbecue 1st & 2nd place titles. Try this recipe for lamb skewers from the Modernist Cuisine kitchen.

Waterworks Inventions to Beat the Heat

Sometimes drenching yourself in water is the only effective way to stay cool in July’s heat. See how Intellectual Ventures Lab invented an automated system for filling and tying thousands of water balloons in an attempt to beat the world record for largest water balloon fight. 

If you don’t like the idea of being soaked, bring your own air conditioning system instead.

Personal Cooling Device

Fireworks Inventions for the Tame and the Rowdy

There’s something elegant about celebrating with sparklers. Simple, yet dazzling.

Two-day Burning Sparkler

For those who like their fireworks loud and proud, go for the projectile launcher.

Combustion Chamber for Launching Fireworks Projectiles

Patent US8402893

Inventions for the Sweet Tooth

For a summery dessert, do you go for the fruit pie and ice cream or the popsicles? Eleven-year-old Frank Epperson left a stir stick in some fruit-flavored soda water outdoors on a cold winter night in 1905. Nineteen years later, he applied for a patent for “frozen ice on a stick” called the Epsicle.

Frozen Confectionery

Patent US1505592

If you prefer pie, this pie plate attachment couldn’t be more patriotic—it was patented on July 4, 1905 (coincidentally the same year that Epperson had his chilling Eureka! moment).

The list of creative ideas goes on, because invention is ingrained in the American experience.  We flew the world’s first airplane. We landed on the moon. We invented the Internet and a motorized ice cream cone.

Happy Independence Day, and happy inventing!

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IV in the News: Institute for Disease Modeling

It’s been a busy couple of months for IV’s Institute for Disease Modeling. By developing detailed computer simulations of disease transmission for malaria, polio, tuberculosis, and HIV overlaid with real-time computer modeling of climate, migration and population shifts, IDM provides the scientific data for local governments, multi-lateral institutions and non-profits to make broad policy, program and funding decisions that will help eradicate deadly diseases.    

IV in the News: Institute for Disease Modeling

Recently, Philip Eckhoff, research scientist and IDM’s principal investigator, published a research paper he co-authored with fellow U.S. scientists and health officials in Nigeria studying historical polio caseload patterns and forecast future circulation of two types of wild poliovirus within districts in Nigeria. The paper, published in BMC Medicine, ultimately concluded that the modeling approach used by IDM for this particular study could be applied to other vaccine-preventable diseases for use in other control and elimination programs.

Philip also spoke with both KUOW’s The Record’s Ross Reynolds and Anna Azvolinsky at the Princeton Alumni Weekly about using computer modeling to eradicate infectious diseases in the developing world. Though optimistic about the probability of eradicating polio worldwide in the next five years and ending malaria in most countries in the next 20 to 30, Philip explained the importance of local level support in addition to the great work happening at IDM:

 “No matter how many times we eradicate malaria or another disease in our simulation models, unless the recommendations are put into practice at the local level, we won’t effect change.”

So what began as a modest epidemiological modeling project has grown today to a multi-disciplinary team that is made up of more than 35 physicists, mathematicians, and software developers, who have been making significant strides in determining the combination of health policies and intervention strategies that can lead to disease eradication.  In a recent interview with The Seattle Times, epidemiologist Mike Famulare explains how this approach drew him to IDM in the first place:

“I can sincerely say that I work with unreasonably smart people, and we are more cooperative than competitive. I love this. In the big picture — if I do my job well — I make tiny contributions to the massive effort underway to improve healthcare and control preventable disease world-wide. Maybe I help life get a little better for a lot of people.”

For more on how IDM is helping solve some of the most significant global health challenges we face today, please visit the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory.  

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What Makes a Person an Inventor?

It may sound trite to say that “inventors change the world,” but indeed, they do. Dating back to the first tool to the next generation of nuclear energy, inventors push the boundaries of science, industry and society.

What Makes a Person an Inventor?

At IV, we spend a lot of time talking about what those pioneers have in common. One person who knows better than most is Geoff Deane, VP and General Manager of the IV Lab, an organization that is fueled by risk-taking and creative license. Here’s how Geoff describes the tell-tale signs of an inventor: 

Inquisitive, fearless, intuitive and owner of a broken telephone. Sound familiar? 

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Adriane Brown

Adriane Brown

Adriane Brown is the President and COO of Intellectual Ventures.





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What is the difference between school and real life? In school, you learn the lesson before the test. -Cary Champlin

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#Apollo11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's challenge for America. Revisit his speech at #EverythingVentured

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7/24/1969: #Apollo11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, 920 miles SW of Honolulu, after travelling over 950,000 miles in just over 8 days.

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