Walter L Shaw (1916 – 1996)
The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is New Jersey born telecommunications engineer and inventor, Walter L Shaw. His tale is sad and cautionary.
Modern businesses and governments wouldn’t survive without some of the telephonic devices we take for granted like speaker phones, call forwarding, conference calling, secure lines and the insurance industry would be the poorer without burglar alarms which connect directly to the local cop shop. So embedded are these devices into our daily life that we barely give them a second thought, let alone consider which genius may have invented them. This is where Shaw comes in.
He started his working career in 1935 at Bell Laboratories but during his spare time tinkered away pursuing his ideas and theories around telephony. His first invention in 1948 was an automatic loud-speaking hands-free telephone aka a speakerphone. In 1953 he invented a two-way communications unit. In 1954 he came to the attention of the American president, Eisenhower, and was commissioned to develop a secure telephone link connecting the White House to the Kremlin, known as the Red Phone.
But Shaw’s genius didn’t end there. He invented an automatic re-routing system in 1968, something we now know as call-forwarding, in 1969 conference-calling equipment and in 1971 a Remote Dialling Apparatus with Encoder and Decoder. He was also responsible for developing a tone generator which was later to provide us with our now so familiar touch tone dialling facility. His later inventions included voice print recognition and a burglar alarm that dialled the police. In all, he held 39 patents.
But Shaw’s ingenuity didn’t earn him untold riches. His problems were twofold. Firstly, AT&T held a monopoly on telecommunications in the States at the time and they were somewhat miffed that an employee had developed all this wizardry in his own time. They wanted the patents and rights to his inventions and when he refused, he left their employment. But he didn’t have the resource to put any of his inventions into commercial production. This meant that when the patents expired, the coast was free for others with greater resources to exploit the fruits of his labours.
There was some interest from another source for his black box, which allowed long distance calls to be made free of charge and untraceable – the Mafia. They saw the potential for its use in bookmaking and other illegal activities. But even with the Mafia on his side, Shaw’s fortunes didn’t improve. Rather he came to the attention of the authorities, was hauled in front of a Senate subcommittee and in 1975 was arrested and the following year convicted on eight charges of illegal phone usage. He spent in excess of eleven years in jail.
He died from cancer in 1996. His son, Walter T Shaw, was so embittered by his father’s treatment that he pursued a career of crime, becoming one of the world’s most notorious jewel thieves with over 2,000 robberies to his name. And the black box, perhaps, did find, perhaps, a more legitimate usage. The blue boxes sold by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs to allow free telephone calls to be made was so similar to Shaw’s invention that many have claimed there to be a clear connection. As Jobs said somewhat coyly, “if it hadn’t been for the blue boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple”.
Walter, for your enormous contribution to telephony as we know it today and for your ill-treatment at the hands of corporate America, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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