(Now all the rage, but some of us in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, predicted that it would happen.)
This little vignette was triggered by seeing a re-run of On the Waterfront, starring the inimitable Marlon Brando.
Yes, we all know that it’s not what you know, but whom you know that counts: but what about the converse (sort of), namely who knows you?
Let’s set the scene, that actually began in a conversation conducted by two men, myself and a Dr. Roland Winston (of Argonne National Labs and the University of Chicago, I later discovered), engaged in the use of adjoining urinals. (Those of you in the process of leaping to conclusions can come to ground in a much duller reality.) The venue was a Solar Energy Conference, and the conversation started with me admiring a parabolic-shaped hunk of plastic that Roland had placed on the ceramic divider between us. I learned, a few minutes later, that it was a (truly) novel device, a ‘non-focusing collector’ for concentrating light, including sunlight. The more usual version of what came to be known as a “Winston Non Focusing Collector” was a sort of parabolic shell with an aperture at the rounded small end. I’ll spare you the technicalities, except to say that the elegant simplicity of the concept was matched by its amazingly effective performance.
Roland and I, both solar energy enthusiasts, soon became thoroughly engaged with each other, since our skills and interests in the field were complementary – his in optics, mine in solar cells. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before we had jointly invented a device that neatly used a two-stage version of his Collector to concentrate sunlight onto a solar cell. (Parenthetically, we found that we had created bureaucratic chaos as joint inventors, one from industry and the other from academia: the system had no rule book for such outré events.) Now back to Brando.
In the early days of Tyco (then literally) Labs, my secretary, by name Celia, was an extraordinarily demure, unruffleable and proper young(ish) woman. One otherwise quite normal day in the office, I heard a splutter followed by a clatter and a squeal, not noises one could expect to hear from Celia’s domain. It transpired that she had dropped the phone when the caller announced that he was Marlon Brando wanting to talk to Ed Mlavsky. When she had retrieved said phone and passed the call to me, I found that I was, indeed, talking to none other than the Brando. Wow! He even sounded likehimself.
The reason he was calling me was that he owned an island off Tahiti, and being psychologically allergic, as it were, to fossil fuels, wanted to provide all the power and electricity for the island from solar energy. He’d read my name somewhere that described me as a solar-electricity expert. (In the Kingdom of the Blind....: actually I was pretty well known in the field, even appearing in the lead-off role in the three-minute solar photovoltaics opening puff piece to the BBC production of “Edward the King”, bought by Mobil Oil and shown on nationwide TV.)
As wonderful as it was talking to Brando, his questions reflected his understandable paucity of knowledge about the economic aspects of solar-generated electricity, in the early ‘70s in its developmental infancy and hence still quite impractical for serious use. I found myself apologizing for the inchoate nature of the technology, and very gently tried to persuade him that his noble concept would, regrettably, remain unimplementable for many years to come. Nonetheless, we chatted on amiably for a while. He invited me to come visit him in Tahiti – mailing address: Brando, Tahiti – or in Beverly Hills, or both; he even gave me his unlisted phone number.
In a later conversation with Roland Winston, also a well-publicized solar personage, I learnt that he too had been approached by Brando, and had visited him at his home in California. Roland, an academe and basic researcher, recommended that, if Brando had in mind any practical solar-generated electricity applications, he should contact Ed Mlavsky. Brando’s reaction? “I know Ed Mlavsky!”