AT LARGE: A great man, overlooked

AT LARGE: A great man, overlooked

The best ideas are the simple ones. The ones that you look at and you think, "any idiot could have come up with that". The thing is, idiots never come up with those ideas. Idiots come up with the kind of convoluted, insanely difficulty ideas that you look at and think, "you'd have to be a genius to understand that".

Back in the late 1960s, Vic Burgess was a scientist with the CSIRO. Vic was very wary of the term "genius", but he was certainly no idiot. He was the kind of guy who would watch a woman running and describe the behaviour of her ponytail in terms of mathematical equations.

One evening, he went out to dinner with his wife, who was deaf, and a few of her friends. His wife noted, angrily, that Vic was ignoring one of her friends every time she spoke. The problem, Vic said, was that she wasn't speaking, only mouthing. All the deaf people round the table had switched their hearing aids off because the background noise was too distracting, and they were getting by on lip-reading.

This got Vic to thinking about a way for deaf people to cut through the background noise. Vic's idea was a variation on the "loop" systems you find in some theatres and churches, where the sound is carried on a radio frequency and deaf people can tune their hearing aids in. Vic had already designed and built his own "loop" system for his home - a more efficient system than those available commercially and less prone to interference.

That was a recurrent theme with Vic. You'd show him some device - anything from a CD player to a tape measure - and he'd work out a way it could be improved. If you left him alone with such a device, he'd have it taken apart before you turned around twice. This only became a problem in later life, as he suffered the effects of Parkinson's Disease - he would occasionally not have the energy to put things back together, and you'd be down a tape measure or a CD player.

Anyway, back to the 60s. Vic developed a portable wireless hearing aid that was stunning in its simplicity. A gifted physicist and engineer, he designed the whole widget - everything from the circuit boards to the switches. He lobbied successfully for a universal frequency (3.175MHz) on which the device could operate, thus simplifying the interface further.

The problem with not having a reserved frequency (there was no reserved frequency for "loop" systems at the time) was that the system might be prone to interference from local radio stations that happened to be in proximity to schools and such like. He recalled deaf students at one school with a "loop" system completely baffled during a lesson because what their teacher was saying into the microphone didn't seem to gel with the music - in Arabic - they were hearing. Vic's device would have no such problems.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which lesser minds intervened. The original goals of the CALaid FM (as it was named, after the Commonwealth Acoustic Laboratories where it was developed) were put behind marketing imperatives to add extra features, as well as other people's personal ambitions (there's an adapter that goes on top of the CALaid that is named after its inventor. No-one I've ever spoken to could tell me what it does aside from sit on top and be named after its inventor.)Vic's design philosophy was that if a device was harder to use than a toaster, it wasn't good enough. By the time the CALaid got to market, it was a lot more complicated than a toaster. For instance, it had a switch to select between four separate channels. This was needed, according to the marketers, so that schools could operate multiple systems at once without them interfering with each other. Of course, it was a short-range system, so this wouldn't have been a problem anyway. But with multiple channels the range could be increased - so that if a student went from one classroom to another and forgot to switch channels, they'd get the sound from whatever was going on in the other room. And woe betide the teacher who went to the staff room for a private chat without switching off the microphone!

The CALaid revolutionised the education of deaf children, and is still used in many schools. But it never took off as a portable "loop" system, which was what Vic wanted. Now it's not even made anymore, supplanted by foreign-built devices that are, you guessed it, simpler and easier to use.

The problem with brilliant ideas is that if you make them simple enough for idiots to understand, they'll think they do.

Vale, Vic Burgess, 1929-2002.

Matthew JC. Powell can be contacted on

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