10 Santa Cruz inventions that spread all over—and even changed—the world
When it comes to innovations that have changed the world, Santa Cruz gets sold short. Silicon Valley gets all the hype for being at the cutting edge of technology—but next time you take a selfie, hear a bad singer sound good, use a wireless headset, or stand in front of a baseball pitching machine, you should think about our side of the hill. Here are 10 things you might not know were invented here.
1. The Cell Phone Camera
Last week, Santa Cruz inventor Philippe Kahn had good reason to reflect back 18 years to the first time anyone shot a picture and sent it out to the world via cell phone.
His daughter Sophie is now starting college at NYU, and while he was dropping her off, he says, it hit him how much had happened since she was born. She had been the subject of the first camera phone photo, taken on June 11, 1997. The idea came when he was sitting at Santa Cruz’s Sutter Maternity and Surgery Center waiting for his wife to give labor: He wanted to send the first baby photo of Sophie to his friends and family from his cell phone.
During his wife Sonia Lee’s 18-hour labor, Kahn thought about how clumsy it would be to take a photo and upload it to his laptop to send out. Plus, he needed something to do.
After a couple of trips to Radio Shack for soldering wire, he linked his Casio QV-10 point-and-shoot camera to his Motorola Startac phone, wrote some code, and voila!
“The vision was ‘point, shoot and share instantly,’” the 63-year-old Kahn tells Good Times. “That vision gave birth to citizen journalism, telemedicine in practical ways, and more generally letting Ms. and Mr. Everyone take and share more pictures than ever before. That’s a game-changer.”
Kahn, a French immigrant with degrees in music (as a classical flautist) and math, showed up in Silicon Valley on a tourist visa and wanted to stay. He knew no one here and didn’t have a Green Card, but ended up getting a job making printer cables. He was making a different kind of connection, too—with tech power players, and it led to his co-founding of the software company Borland International in Scotts Valley in 1983. He went through ups and downs, including getting forced out of the company he founded in 1995 after an economic downturn.
But Kahn’s entrepreneurial spirit wouldn’t quit. After the cell phone camera, he started Fullpower Technologies, which focuses on health apps for beds and watches. His devices tell how well and how long you slept and how much exercise you are getting. He has 75 people working for him in downtown Santa Cruz, and pays more than $25,000 a month for the county’s only billboard, on Highway 17, advertising to hire more engineers.
A world-class sailor, Kahn has crossed the Pacific 10 times, and started the Pegasus Racing team. It was those long trips that inspired the Fullpower invention, as a way to monitor sleep during grueling trips. The monitors use technology that tracks micro-movements to see how fitful sleep is.
So why has he stayed in Santa Cruz all these years?
“The first time I experienced the Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz, I decided that Santa Cruz has it all: surfing waves, sailing wind, mountain-biking trails,” Kahn says. “What an ideal playground to create new technology with like-minded passionate engineers.”
Depending on who you ask, music was either saved or destroyed by a man who first made his fortune listening to the sounds of the Earth to find oil.
After getting his degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1976, Harold (Andy) Hildebrand started his career at Exxon doing seismic research to look for fossil fuel. In 1979, he started his own company, which turned sound pumped underground into 3D oil maps. The technology involved blasting an explosive charge, and tracking the sound that came back.
A concert flautist since he was 16, Hildebrand went back to music in 1989 to try something new. He was studying sound engineering when a woman at a trade show dinner asked him to make her a box that allowed her to sing in tune.
“Everyone looked down at their plates,” says Hildebrand, 68, from his home in Felton. “I thought it was a lousy idea. But toward the end of the year, I was looking for something else to do and I spent months developing it. I brought it to the same trade show.”
The box, called Auto-Tune, enabled off-pitch digital signals to move to the right pitch. Studio engineers had been doing it for years with primitive technologies that took a long time to work. Hildebrand’s invention did it instantly, but for years no one wanted to admit to using it.
Then came Cher’s 1998 song “Believe,” which not only put her in tune, but used a “zero-function” setting that created a machine-like pitch. The resulting effect was a sensation, but the single’s producer, Mark Turner, didn’t admit it had been created by Auto-Tune, and instead claimed that he had used a vocoder. Several subsequent artists who independently discovered how it was done kept up the vocoder facade, which allowed the technique to retain its mystique into the 21st century. By the time artists like T-Pain were basing their entire careers on it, though, the secret was out.
“I put that setting in as a joke,” Hildebrand says of the now-infamous effect. “Who would ever put it to zero?”
As a music lover, he shares the same concerns as many critics of his invention.
“An artist, a trained musician, knows it’s being used in every song because no one can humanly sing that well,” he says. “Some use it artistically, but others just use it everywhere and it gets kind of boring. I explain to people that I just build the car. I don’t drive it on the wrong side of the freeway.”
When asked whether Auto-Tune is cheating, he says “there’s a grain of truth in that.”
“On the other hand,” he says, “they are using reverb, microphones and other technologies to improve the sound. My wife uses make-up. Is that cheating?”
In January, Hildebrand was at the NAMM music distributors trade show in Anaheim displaying his latest product, Auto-Tune for guitar. He hasn’t had to work for decades, but continues to because he loves it, even though it can be tedious—he wrote more than 300,000 lines of code for the guitar Auto-Tune.
“Try doing that over three years,” he says. His business is based in Scotts Valley, and he lives in Felton, because “any town where you can raise chickens is a good town to live in.”
3. Lightweight Communication Headsets
We’ve all heard about the technology created in garages over the hill, but odds are good you have used a product created out of a Santa Cruz garage.
In 1961, two pilots unhappy with bulky, uncomfortable headsets that were the industry standard created a new lightweight design that has set a distance record–Plantronics headsets went to the moon, and were the conveyer of Neil Armstrong’s famous first words.
Originally called Pacific Plantronics, the company started by Courtney Graham and Keith Larkin still has a state-of-the art headquarters in Harvey West Park, complete with a gourmet lunchroom, homegrown vegetables, eco-friendly energy and gadgets galore. In 1962, astronaut Wally Schirra wore a Plantronics headset under his helmet during his six laps orbiting the Earth. In 1963, the FAA approved their headsets for air traffic controllers. In 1967, the company sold 100,000 headsets, bringing in $5.4 million. It became the dominant headset maker for t
elephone and emergency operators.
Today, the company’s wireless office headsets and Bluetooth earpieces are ubiquitous. It has 3,000 employees worldwide and brought in revenue of $818 million last year.
Santa Cruzan Greg Glassman was a gymnast who wanted to get stronger. He found he was getting better results using barbells and dumbbells than other gymnasts who just used body weight for exercise.
He started the CrossFit training program in a Santa Cruz gym in 1995, and his first client was the Santa Cruz Police Department. As demand for his training grew, Glassman and former wife Lauren Jenai incorporated the CrossFit brand in 2000 and moved to other markets. In 2012, there were 3,400 affiliates worldwide, and three in Santa Cruz.
The regimen is known for being hardcore, including the use of tractor tires and high-intensity workouts with names like “Fran.” Glassman explains the choice in the CrossFit Journal: “I thought that anything that left you flat on your back, looking up at the sky, asking ‘what just happened to me?’ deserved a female name. Workouts are like storms, they wreak havoc on towns.”
The program has its critics, who claim the rewards of such intense workouts aren’t worth the risks.
5. The Modern Bike Helmet
Santa Cruzan Jim Gentes didn’t invent the bike helmet; he created one that people actually want to wear. Before he made the Giro helmet in 1985, choices were slim. Some cyclists wore the leather straps fashionable with European racers. Others chose stodgy round Bell helmets that looked like white pumpkins.
Gentes, 58, a bike racer with an eye for design and training from San Jose State University, came up with his first sleek Prolite helmet in 1985 (it was white with red Lycra covering the sides). Over the years, his helmets grew more flashy and light, with plenty of protection.
Gentes sold the company to Bell in 1996. It’s now owned by Easton-Bell and still has a research and development plant in Scotts Valley.
6. The GorillaPod
Santa Cruz entrepreneur JoeBen Bivert made a fortune on a goofy-looking piece of soft hardware for cell phones called the GorillaPod, which reached sales of $26 million a year. It’s a Gumby-like bendable tripod that holds cell phone cameras stable.
But that was just the jumping off point for an entrepreneur who was trained at U.C. Davis and received a masters in 1997 from Stanford. He’s started a ranch called Sproutwerx for startups on Santa Cruz’s North Coast and he has companies working on drones, flying cars, wind turbines and robots. He’s a local version of Elon Musk. The secluded ranch, near the electricity-free Merry Prankster hippie commune on which he was raised, also grows its own organic food.
Some of his companies based at the ranch on Woodpecker Ridge include: Joby Aviation, which makes a craft that builds hovering flying crafts; Transition Robotics, which makes hovering toys; Joby Energy, which makes flying vehicles that generate energy from the wind; and Swift Navigation, which makes GPS systems that update 50 times a second—something that could help make flying cars a reality.
7. The ‘Power Pitcher’ Pitching Machine
There are several claims to the first baseball pitching machine, and one of them belongs to Santa Cruz’s Lorenzo “Larry” J. Ponza, Jr., who developed the “Power Pitcher” in 1952. They are still selling the machines after his death in 2004 at the age of 86.
The first claim to a pitching machine was Charles Hinton, whose 1897 gunpowder-fired balls were fast, furious and caused injuries to the Princeton University baseball team, where he developed it.
Two others are credited with the arm-type machine pitcher. One is Paul Giovagnoli, whose company, Master Pitching Machine, still sells the machines. The other, Santa Cruz’s Ponza, was born to Italian immigrants in Scotts Valley and created the “Power Pitcher” to help Little Leaguers. His machines, including the “Casey” and the “Rookie” are sold by the Athletic Training Equipment company of Sparks, Nevada.
8. Neuro Linguistic Programming
What if you could make people want things by giving them a series of unconscious messages and clues? That’s a simplified description of Neuro Linguistic Programming. It’s marketing to the max, although UCSC professor John Grinder and student Richard Bandler, who founded what was a part of the “Human Potential Movement,” had other things in mind, such as helping people break out of bad habits by modeling good ones.
They claimed people could gain exceptional skills by imitating the practices of those who have them, and said NLP could treat phobias, depression, psychosomatic illnesses and even allergies. Their claims are controversial, to say the least, but have gained popularity from followers such as TV sales pitch guru Tony Robbins.
The duo’s methods were outlined in the 1975 tome The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy.
9. Osprey Packs
In the 1970s, Mike Pfotenhauer made a name for himself in Santa Cruz with a company called Santa Cruz Recreational Packs. It was a backpack company run out of the front of his house that produced custom-fitted, made-to-order backpacks. Word of mouth about the business kept a line of travelers coming to his door and waiting for days to have their packs made.
Eventually, he began designing his own line of packs, based on what he’d learned from customer requests, and called it Osprey Packs. The company was a pioneer of the breathable mesh that is now ubiquitous on outdoor gear. Pfotenhauer and partner Diane Wren moved the company to Colorado in 1987, and later to Vietnam, but the respected brand of packs with a lifetime warranty lives on.
10. The Loganberry
What do you get when you cross a blackberry and a raspberry? A Loganberry, the hybrid that was invented in Santa Cruz in 1883 by lawyer and gardener James Logan—who created it quite by accident.
Logan was trying to mix two varieties of blackberries to make a tastier one, but they mixed instead with a nearby “Red Antwerp” raspberry.
Loganberries are said to be sturdier and more frost resistant than many other berries, and are used for syrups, desserts and soft drinks.