Inspiration truly can strike at any time.
For Dr. David Tonn, an engineer in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s Undersea Warfare Electromagnetic Systems Department, his idea for revolutionizing the Submarine Mast Antenna Controller came not in a laboratory, but rather while mowing the lawn one Saturday morning.
“This problem was bouncing around my head while I was driving along, cutting the grass, and all of a sudden, the idea came to me. AHA! That’s how to do it,” Tonn said. “It really, truly, does come when you least expect it. Sometimes they’re the result of a deliberate engineering process, but sometimes it’s just an idea that comes to you out of the blue that pans out.”
After he finished mowing the lawn, Tonn rushed into his house in Charlestown, Rhode Island, to begin sketching out his idea on a piece of paper so that he did not forget it over the weekend.
Those thoughts, scrawled on a piece of paper one Saturday morning, led to an invention that is used on 64 U.S. Navy submarines and has saved the fleet more than $15 million.
For his efforts, Tonn, along with associate counselor Jean-Paul Nasser of Division Newport’s Office of Counsel, who is a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts, were awarded the 2018 Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen Award for Patented Inventions.
“I have been very fortunate and very blessed in my career to have something that I’ve worked on that has actually made it out into the fleet,” said Tonn, who began his career at the New London detachment in 1995. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s one thing I like about my job here is we have a chance to really make a difference.”
The invention — U.S. Patent number 8,063,838 (link: https://patents.google.com/patent/US8063838) — which reduced the complexity of the antenna controller unit (ACU), saves approximately $230,000 per installation. As recipients of this award, presented on behalf of the Office of Naval research (ONR), both Tonn and Nasser received a plaque and a cash award.
The award is named in honor of Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen, who was the first chief of Naval Research. He was responsible for the establishment of a “grass roots” patent system within the Navy and instrumental in the creation of ONR.
While Tonn and Nasser were only recently recognized with the Bowen Award, the work getting to this point dates back more than a decade.
“It was about 1998 when I started working on this project. I was looking to improve and modernize radio room hardware,” Tonn said. “I had this tough problem: How do we take this antenna controller that’s about the size of a big, old-fashioned microwave oven and make it into something that can be remotely controlled and fit into this new equipment rack?”
Once Tonn solved this problem and it became time to apply for a patent, Nasser became involved. It is a familiar process to Tonn, who has 28 patents in his nearly 25-year career at Division Newport.
“Working with Dave is such an absolute pleasure. He’s one of our Thomas Edisons,” Nasser, who has worked at Division Newport since 2002, said. “Maybe he doesn’t have the most patents issued at NUWC, but he’s up there as far as quality of inventions and stature as an inventor. He’s in the top five or 10 since I’ve been here.”
Nasser explained that there are three requirements patent attorneys looks for in filing an application: Is it new or novel? Is it non-obvious? Is it useful? Useful is usually the easiest to prove, Nasser said, with determining if this particular invention is new the next most difficult. Non-obvious is the most challenging to prove, which requires the attorney and inventor to be particularly sound in their filing.
“The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is part of the Department of Commerce, and they have a whole staff of folks who are called patent examiners. They are subject matter experts in very, very narrow fields of engineering and science,” Nasser said. “You better know what you’re talking about, and your inventor better know what they’re talking about, because you’re not going to get nonsense by these people.”
Accordingly, Nasser emphasized that good patents need to be clear but also to the point.
“I’m very thankful to JP and everyone in legal for all of their support in developing this patent and several others as well,” Tonn said. “This is a great honor.”