Crazy Fish May Redefine Computer Industry

He claims to have invented e-mail. He holds a world skydiving record. But his current invention promises to top them all

The North Dallas apartment is tiny and as dim as a titty bar at noon. Only one light bulb burns in the ceiling fan fixture, so for the sake of a visitor, Russell Hamilton Fish III screws in the other three bulbs.

"My parents said they bought a house with the money they saved from turning off lights," says Fish, blinking deep-set brown eyes in an angular face. At 6-foot-1, Fish has the dark hair and good looks of a Clark Kent and casts a charming and commanding presence. "I have completely internalized that."

There's nothing homey about the place; against one wall is just a desk with a computer monitor and a laptop. Above that is a large world map, time zones monitored by five clocks so Fish can keep track of a handful of programmers on different continents working on his latest top-secret project, which he promises will change the world.

From his North Dallas apartment, Russell Fish keeps up with programmers around the world working on his latest project.
Brandon Thibodeaux
From his North Dallas apartment, Russell Fish keeps up with programmers around the world working on his latest project.
Friend Ben Goldfarb runs with Fish 10 miles every Saturday at White Rock Lake.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Friend Ben Goldfarb runs with Fish 10 miles every Saturday at White Rock Lake.

In the corner sits a homemade "Tesla coil," a red and silver metal mushroom the size of a 5-year-old. He built the high-voltage transformer with some students to emit spectacular electrical discharges. "Aahh," he says, "don't touch that. You'll be electrocuted."

Fish sits in front of the monitors and responds to e-mail. He's wearing his usual uniform: T-shirt, shorts and running shoes.

Ascetic doesn't begin to describe Fish, whose current vehicle is a minivan he bought for $300. His new apartment on Preston Oaks Road is a palace compared to the hermit's slum that was his home for the last decade and had little more than plastic chairs and a bed.

So it was always weird when Fish offered friends stories of his life, delivered in a rat-a-tat style, ironic high points punctuated by his boisterous laugh. Fish has claimed:

That he and a partner designed the ShBoom microprocessor, which in 1989 went four times as fast as its closest rivals.

That he invented electronic mail.

That he was the first in the country to post sex offenders' names and addresses on the Internet.

That he set a world record skydiving in one of the most grueling athletic events on the planet.

That he taught math to inner-city kids in East Palo Alto, where school started each morning with kids singing the African National Congress Anthem.

That, as a card-carrying member of the National Organization for Women, he walked the Castro district in San Francisco to campaign for a feminist mayoral candidate.

That he later served on the national board of the anti-feminist National Congress of Men.

That as chief executive officer of a company in California he was shaken down for bribes by a small-town mayor who had killed a man.

That he posted a $10,000 reward for apprehending terrorists who in 1985 hijacked a plane and killed a Navy Seal.

That he'd found "D.B. Cooper," the pseudonym for the elusive thief who in 1971 hijacked a plane and escaped with a ransom of $200,000 by parachuting from a 727 somewhere over Oregon.

And the most unbelievable: In 1989, Fish had designed a timing mechanism called the "Fish Clock" now embedded in virtually every microchip used in electronic consumer products.

Friends would look around the ratty old apartment, where pictures drawn by minority kids Fish tutored every afternoon adorned the walls, and wonder: Can any of this be true?

Turns out it all is.

Well, the verdict is still out on his candidate for D.B. Cooper.

But his current project promises to top them all: a new "computer architecture" that he says "might redefine the industry"—enabling applications such as cell phones that translate languages and computers that reduce the time it takes to sequence DNA from months to days.

"If I'm not too old," Fish says, "I may have done it again."

Unpredictable is the best adjective for Fish, known in Dallas as an outspoken political gadfly and education activist who sued the Dallas Independent School District in the 1990s for students' testing scores; he intended to post them on the Internet to "out" bad teachers.

He comes from a family of rabble-rousers. With the motto Nulla Lex Sine Luce, or "No Law Without Light," Fish's grandfather in 1924 started the Texas Legislative Service, a $1,000-a-week publication for lobbyists now run by his two brothers.

During his childhood in Austin, Fish says, his grandmother, a "frustrated scientist," taught him simultaneous linear equations and read to him in Latin. His mother played polo and sang opera. His father, from a dynastic East Coast political family where the men were all named Hamilton Fish, was a fighter pilot who loved fast cars. Fish calls this "the black sheep" side of the family. Both parents were highly competitive and had a fierce work ethic. "You worked hard, you played hard," Fish says. "And you gave back."

Fish loved math and logic and started inventing gadgets in elementary school. Unlike most geeks, he threw himself into strange and physically challenging environments with gusto. When designing he did the same. Fish calls that zone "Russell on crack."

"His ideal situation is for him to go off in a corner and invent and have everything else taken care of," says Beth Blankenship, his current business partner. "He sits back and looks at a white wall, and it comes to him."

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