Crazy Fish May Redefine Computer Industry
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.
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."
In the early 1990s, Fish was 35 and at the peak of a creative period when he abruptly "retired" from the computer business to pursue something more important to him than fame and wealth: his son Tommy, born to an ex-girlfriend.
Fish left California for Texas to be near Tommy, doing consulting when he needed money to fund a bruising custody battle with his ex-girlfriend. There were years when Fish rarely saw his son.
Over the last decade, another legal fight worked its way through federal courts. It turns out Patent #5,809,336, which Fish filed in 1989 for the "Fish Clock," is worth millions.
Another patent could prove the same. He calls it TOMI-VAC, for Thread-Optimized Microprocessor, and claims it will change the world.
This year marked a turning point. With his new wealth Fish has joined an effort started by retired Apple executive Patrick O'Sullivan to build schools for Masai children in Kenya.
"He is a maverick," says O'Sullivan. "He was wired wrong. Russell doesn't think outside the box. He lives outside the box."
How did Fish go from being a potential Silicon Valley hot shot to living a miserly life in a crummy apartment? It's a crazy story fit for a man named Fish.
Racing through the airline terminal with one parachute on his back and another on his chest, Fish passed through a metal detector and—DING, DING, DING—all hell broke loose.
Realizing the metallic badge from the National Security Agency was still on his chest, Fish pulled it off and handed it to the guard, who read it and escorted him onto the plane.
With one semester to go at Georgia Tech in 1973, Fish had been asked by a recruiter from the NSA to apply. "They were interested in me because I was an engineer and had a couple of hundred jumps," Fish says.
After Fish had completed an intense week of psych evals, stress testing and physical challenges, the instructors told him the job: parachuting into Czechoslovakia and running a satellite receiver on top of a mountain. After almost four years at mostly male Georgia Tech with no women, he said no thanks. Fish was running to catch an airplane for a stunt: jumping into a friend's wedding.
In addition to the NSA, the big engineering companies were also recruiting at Georgia Tech. On a partial swimming scholarship, Fish had loaded up on hours as a junior and senior and his grades suffered.
"Well, you don't have the best grades or SAT and during the interview you constantly stepped on your foreskin," the interviewer from Motorola said, "but we're going to give you a job anyway."
While working for Motorola, Fish earned a master's degree in electrical engineering. Brilliant men in their 20s were creating the first generation of microprocessors. It was a heady time.
"I'm present within six months of the birth of the microprocessor," Fish says. "There were probably 100 people in the world who knew anything about microprocessors. I have the memo directing Mike [Wiles] to design a single-chip microprocessor."
The good news was that Fish got laid off from Motorola. Because of that he moved back to Austin and took great-paying consulting jobs for a while. In 1976, after Fish designed a microprocessor for Dresser Industries' computerized gas pump, he ended up on a "Top 100" list of Silicon Valley up-and-comers in Business Week.
By 1978, courtesy of the Business Week mention, Fish had been hired by Fairchild Computers, the micro-electronics giant that created Silicon Valley in the 1960s, as a product manager for microcomputers in the Metal Oxide Semiconductor (MOS) division.
One day, after most people had left, Fish raced up the stairwell and ran into Wilf Corrigan, then company chairman of the board.
"You don't know me," Fish said, "but I need a plane ticket to go to Huntsville, Alabama."
Fish had received a call at 3 p.m. that day from a sales rep named Ralph Laughlin in Alabama. "We have a chance to get the Chrysler trip computer," the rep had told him. At the time, the microprocessor was put in each Chrysler vehicle as a navigation system.
The deal was worth $10 million. Fairchild, which made its reputation making integrated circuits used in military systems, was struggling to figure out how to make money from microprocessors.
Fish grabbed some paper and for three hours drew in pencil. He stamped each page "CONFIDENTIAL" and ran to accounting. The next morning, in the same clothes that he'd worn the day before, Fish "tap-danced" for the decision-makers.
"I said, 'I can't show you all this, but I can give you a glimpse,'" Fish says. "I gave them a vision of the future." Fairchild got the contract, the second million-piece microprocessor deal in the industry's history.
"All of the sudden people wanted to know, 'Who was this kid at MOS?'" Fish says.
The MOS division developed the trip computer, and the project went into production. The project was almost complete when Fish got fired in March 1979. A story ran in the EE Times, an electrical engineering trade journal, headlined "Beached Fish Flips Out Over Firing by Fairchild."
"Fish says he still feels very positively about Fairchild and would like to return if top management can clear the way," the article said. "The problem is his tendency to circumvent the usual channels to power, usually tactlessly and abrasively, friends and critics agree. However some Fairchild insiders describe him as having the 'ballsy, sophisticated, well-thought-out technical insights' that if implemented could pull the MOS division out of its alleged problems."
Fish admits he has been canned or laid off from every job he's had.
"I have a real problem working with incompetent people," Fish says. One boss gave him a paper on "the abrasive personality."
Out of work, Fish decided to write a book. He had already written one book called Microprocessors in Systems.
"I thought, 'What else do I know something about?'" Fish says. And the logical answer: "Women!"
After leaving Georgia Tech, Fish had developed a profound appreciation for pretty girls. Most liked the tall, handsome man with liquid brown eyes and crazy pick-up lines. With what he'd saved living frugally, Fish bought a handful of plane tickets and hopped around the country visiting popular bars and hot clubs and interviewing men, women, doormen and DJs.
The result was the self-published Disco Moves: A Comprehensive Guide to Meeting and Making Women in Discos, by Hamilton Fish.
Both sincere and hilarious, this how-to offers tips for picking the right disco, identifying females—the Barfly, the Disco Queen, the Bored Housewife, the Hooker, the "I'm My Own Woman," the First-timer—outplaying the male competition and the "unwritten laws of the disco written down."
These include: Thou shalt not hustle the bartender's lady; thou shalt never go after a lady in a group of more than two; thou shalt never, ever, ever give the key to your place to a lady, regardless of how well you know her; thou shalt not steal ladies from the Ali Baba Ethnic Man; thou shalt not play Macho Man when accosting I'm My Own Woman; and finally, absolutely avoid the Barfly like the plague. He offers advice on what to do the next morning when you find a lovely woman in your rumpled bed. Make her breakfast, stupid.
As an engineer, Fish, of course, included flow charts, equations, appendices and a "body language translator."
The book got Fish publicity and a column called "Sex in America" for Oui, a rambunctious soft-porn men's magazine. One column described his experience joining the "mile-high club."
The column lasted five issues. As for the book: "I hear it's popular in prisons," Fish says, laughing like a hyena.
By 1982, Fish had turned his attention to start-ups and takeovers. He had an idea forming, and he wanted more autonomy.
On an index card he wrote: "I have been concentrating intensely on a new concept...of electronic mail. Not electronic mail done with large expensive computers and highly trained operators but electronic mail done with equipment as common and easy to use as the telephone. The impact will be staggering."
Fish filed a patent in 1983 for a desktop device with a screen: the Post Mark 300, which sent and received messages like a telex.
Unable to get traditional funding, Fish raised $200,000 from friends in Austin and issued shares in his new effort: Post Technologies.
Fish found an old helicopter factory that leased for 20 cents a square foot in East Palo Alto, a high-crime minority area where blackened buildings torched in a riot a decade earlier sat untouched. He recruited assembly line workers through the neighborhood church.
One day while pounding the streets on his noon run, Fish was a few paces behind his running buddy, dodging rusted cars, rubble and trash, when he heard popping sounds. Fish turned and saw a boy crouched in the alley, pointing a handgun. A bullet smacked on the curb after whistling between Fish and his friend. "That's the kind of stuff that happened when the only building you could afford was in the ghetto," Fish says.
After four years Fish moved the company southeast to a flat, ugly town called Chowchilla. The mayor promised a new industrial park, Fish says, but it never materialized.
Facing competition from big companies such as 3M and Texas Instruments, which had rival products, Fish had to slice his costs. He moved the factory farther south to god-forsaken Kerman, California, where he says it was difficult to find prospective employees who had finished high school. Fish soon was back to working 80-hour weeks. After eight years living with his girlfriend from San Francisco, she had enough of his hours and of Kerman and moved out.
Fish was soon up to his neck in controversy after the mayor demanded under-the-table payoffs or else. After discovering police records that showed the mayor in 1962 had killed a man by slamming his skull with a billiard ball, Fish took the mayor's threat seriously, and loudly, denouncing the mayor in front of the city council.
On Halloween night in 1986, Fish was awakened in the middle of the night to the news that his factory had been torched. He discovered equipment missing, files destroyed and goo poured into his mainframe computer.
A private investigator found the arsonists and recovered most of the equipment. Almost all the data was retrieved. But Post Technologies was on life support.
It was Thanksgiving weekend 1987. After giving up skydiving for five years, Fish had leaped back in and, as usual, went overboard.
About 50 top professionals and amateurs were competing in the Budweiser Pro-Am Sky Diving classic in Kerman. Fish was a prime organizer. Most competitors attended the charity event to do formations, accuracy jumps or canopy hot-dogging. Fish and one other competitor, a woman named Cheryl Stearns, were the only skydivers attempting to break the Air-Enduro record for the most jumps in 24 hours. The men's record was 250; the women's record was 76.
Started by the military in 1926 and held every two years, the Air-Enduro was attempted by few.
"I figured, 'What the hell?'" Fish says. "I might as well try."
At 34, Fish was too old; most who attempted it were in their 20s. But once committed, Fish tackled conditioning as if he were D.B. Cooper training to leap from a 727 with the FBI on his ass. He called Stearns, whom he'd met on the skydiving circuit when she was 17, to see if she would compete with him. At 33, she was known as "The Falling Angel" and the holder of numerous skydiving world records.
"She is the best and most proficient skydiver to ever put on a chute," Fish says. "I think I taunted her about the female record."
While in the military, Stearns had become the first female Golden Knight, a member of the skydiving team of the U.S. Army. Her name would draw crowds so they agreed to try to beat the record together.
"People don't say no to him," says Stearns, now an airline pilot. "He's a hard-charger, but he works in a different dimension."
They recruited 50 volunteers as packers, riggers, dressers and undressers, as well as seven or eight pilots flying Cessna 210s. They made their first jump at 4:30 p.m.
A five-and-a-half-minute cycle was two minutes to altitude, two minutes to spiral to landing, and 90 seconds to get stripped, sprint to the staging area and get dressed with a new rig.
"It is fun in the same way running a marathon is fun," Fish says. "Your adrenaline is pumping. But it's physically draining. Your body is taking a lot of Gs."
On one fall, he slammed into the hood of a car where a drop zone was supposed to be, dodging the windshield but shredding the fabric of a pant leg on his flight suit. His crew raced to grab Fish, field-strip him and check for injury. But Fish wasn't ready to stop jumping. He and Stearns were ready to go, again and again.
By midnight, the weather at Lodi Airfield was 28 degrees. The only lights were car headlamps and TV lights. Satisfied his leg wasn't broken, the crew strapped on another parachute rig. Fish threw a slice of kiwi in his mouth as he limped for the next airplane, dove in with his partner and the plane began its quick race to 2,000 feet.
Starting to tire, Fish looked at Stearns. Trembling with the cold, she looked nauseated. Fish squeezed Stearns' knee in encouragement and then stood behind her at the door. Jump...pull...fall into a deep black well. Whoomp.
As soon as their square canopies opened, each pulled a handle to collapse one corner of it and started spinning. A jumper normally drops at 10 feet per second; spinning increased that to 40 feet per second. They beat the plane to the ground.
At sunrise, Stearns started feeling better; Fish was tiring. The meet director told them since they had made only 113 night jumps they had no chance of beating the record. Given their health, they should quit.
"The hell we are," Stearns said. She looked at Fish. "Can we pick it up?" she asked. More than anything Fish wanted to stop. But he looked at Stearns and nodded. They ran for the next plane.
This time, she pushed their tempo. With two hours to go, Dave Huber, the record holder, rushed up to them holding a calculator and said they'd gained so much ground that they had a chance to beat 250.
After jump 242, Fish landed and as the crew stripped him, a volunteer slipped on wet grass and kicked him in the chest, breaking two ribs. A doctor began riding with them to altitude.
"I remember being tired and sleepy and hurting," Fish says, "but after noon I wasn't feeling anything but my ribs." He screamed in pain when the canopy opened and again when he landed.
Fish remembers hearing cheering when they landed jump No. 250. The meet director pleaded with them to quit, but they still had 19 minutes to go.
"I wanted to get to the 24 hours," Fish says. Only four men had ever lasted that long. After jump No. 255, the clock ran out.
In a phenomenal performance of will and guts, Fish and Stearns had averaged 10.6 jumps per hour or one every 5 minutes and 39 seconds. Their fastest cycle: 3 minutes and 28 seconds.
Though Fish thought only jumpers cared about the record, the story of Stearns' and Fish's grueling accomplishment appeared in newspapers around the world.
For a while, Fish was a celebrity on drop zones. But in the last agonizing hours of the Air-Enduro he remembers falling and spinning and thinking, "You probably should slow down a bit. Find a nice girl. Have a family."
The experience forced him to face another reality. The fax machine had killed his electronic mail company, Post Technologies. Fish had to fire everyone, sell off his inventory and find a buyer for the building.
"It was absolutely crushing," Fish says, calling it one of the lowest points of his life. A friend lost $50,000 he'd invested in Post. "You've failed yourself, your shareholders and your employees. And you're wrong. Who wants to use electronic mail?"
"This may be a significant filing," the lawyer told Fish when he handed him the patent document. It was 1989, and Fish and co-inventor Chuck Moore had invented a new microchip they called Sh-Boom. "Have you got anything else?" the patent lawyer asked.
"Well, I have this screwy idea about this clock," Fish said. He didn't mean one on the wall.
Back in Silicon Valley, Fish was floundering when he ran into Moore—"a computing-world rock god"—at a bar called Sh-Boom in Sunnyvale. Creator of the FORTH computer language and architect of two microprocessors, Moore also was at loose ends. They began collaborating.
By July 1989, working with Oki Electric, a Japanese company, they had created the architecture and logic design of Sh-Boom; at 60 megahertz it would be three times as fast as other microprocessors.
But at "lay out," where the transistors are drawn the way they will be on the silicon, a computerized simulation revealed their microprocessor didn't work because the internal clock, an electronic tick that tells the circuits when to do what, failed.
Using an idea out of left field, Fish designed a high-speed on-chip clock. "My design synchronizes the clock with the performance of the transistors that make up the rest of the circuit." Fish says. "The Oki guys said this is ridiculous and we can't even simulate it." Fish's clock was set aside. A slower-speed Sh-Boom chip went into production with a clock designed by his partner Moore.
Fish drafted a patent and the drawings for the Sh-Boom chip and a dozen other ideas, some Moore had come up with, some Fish had created.
"I was pretty sure that the inventions I'd come up with would work," Fish says, "but everybody was saying they were bullshit. Everybody."
When the patent lawyer asked if he had anything else, Fish explained his clock idea. "That's significant," the lawyer said. "Go draw it."
The next day Fish handed him a yellow pad and the clock patent was filed at the last moment. On all the documents Fish included Moore's name.
Then the manufacturer in Japan reported that Sh-Boom didn't work. When a programmer who had been hired to design a printer using Sh-Boom called to congratulate him, Fish knew something was fishy. He tells a tale of theft and corporate espionage involving a Japanese businessman, Fish and a high-ranking U.S. trade representative. But he got back the designs, prototypes and parts in an unmarked box mailed from Japan.
Fish and Moore went their separate ways and each started trying to license the chip.
"That was about the time Intel was beginning to sweep everybody else away, and if it didn't run Intel instructions," Fish says, "it didn't matter."
Alliance Semiconductor licensed Sh-Boom and went "balls to the wall" to produce the microprocessors only to have the memory chip market swing the other way. Alliance filed for bankruptcy. "All of a sudden my meal ticket was gone," Fish says.
One Sunday in mid-1992, Fish was at home when a man knocked on the door of his barely furnished apartment in Mountainview, California. He opened it to find a middle-aged man who looked like an Italian gigolo: salt-and-pepper hair, white silk shirt, green leather pants and a gold chain. Introducing himself as Helmut Falk from Romania, the man said, "I vant to buy your microprocessor."
It turned out that Falk was a wealthy entrepreneur. In 1992, they worked out a deal for his company, Nanotronics, to license the Sh-Boom chip for up to $10 million in royalties.
On top of the world, Fish suddenly "retired" and moved back to Texas.
As he stood at the nursery window, staring at a pink baby boy with black hair, Fish says, he was "completely, catastrophically, 100 percent smitten."
After the Air-Enduro, Fish had tried to settle down with a pretty bank executive named Sue.
"I was looking for someone who would be a good mama," Fish says. "I was as emotionally attached to her as I'd ever been to anybody." Sue was divorced but stable, owned a home and had a great job. Instead of asking her to marry him, Fish asked if she wanted to start a family. He says she agreed.
In 1988, Sue got pregnant; both were devastated when she miscarried. As Fish's company collapsed, Sue took a new position and the two moved to the Bay Area, living in a hotel.
After almost a year together, Sue asked him to leave. He asked if she was pregnant and Sue said no. He moved in with a friend in San Francisco.
In early 1989, Sue called. "I'm going to have your baby in a month, and it's a boy," she said.
"I thought you weren't pregnant," Fish said. "I lied," she responded.
Fish sent her flowers and drove to the bank where she worked. "We gotta get married," he told her. Not only did Sue not want to get married, she told Fish to get lost. (Sue did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Tommy was born on April 7, 1989. After seeing the newborn, Fish refused to disappear. "I was blown away," he says. "I mentally retired. I saw the rest of my life is going to be with this kid."
Fish filed a court action claiming paternity. Sue denied he was the father. It took Fish months to get a court-ordered blood test, which proved he had fathered Tommy. The absurdity of the California family court infuriated Fish. It seemed to him the courts were dominated by feminists and lesbians. Men were demonized and dismissed as probably violent and usually unnecessary, he felt.
"That's probably the time I got involved in the men's organizations," Fish says. He ended up on the board of the National Congress of Men. Fish at times got appointed as a "court watcher" to go along with members to court hearings.
Accompanying a man who belonged to the group to San Jose County court in 1991, Fish was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Several San Jose police officers testified to the same thing: Fish had attacked an officer.
Then his attorney put on a string of witnesses who had been sitting in the hallways. Every one testified that the officer was the aggressor and Fish had tried to back away. The jury acquitted him.
Because this is the life of Russell Fish,that wasn't the end of it. His "not guilty" verdict came within days of the acquittal of Rodney King for attacking Los Angeles cops. Fish ended up on Larry King, CNN news and the Jenny Jones Show talking about police misconduct and men's rights.
A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal in 1992 alerted Fish that Sue's bank was under investigation. He called her attorney to schedule a court hearing and learned Sue had blown town. Fish's son was gone.
"Mr. Fish?" the caller asked. "This is the emergency room at Methodist Hospital. Are you the guy with the poster? We think we have your son."
When Sue disappeared, a frantic Fish hired a private detective who tracked them to Carrollton. For months Fish commuted from California to Texas, pursuing a paternity ruling through a Denton County court.
A judge ruled Fish was the father, ordered that he pay child support and granted visitation rights.
Ecstatic, Fish moved back to Austin and drove to Dallas for visitations. The boy awoke in Fish a powerful paternal instinct. The maverick who at 13 got kicked out of his parents' house for mouthing off to his dad wanted his son to have order, gentle but firm discipline, exercise and exposure to teamwork through sports.
But most of all, safety. Voluminous court records document Fish's obsession with keeping Tommy out of harm's way.
Fish accused Sue of smoking marijuana as well as abusing cocaine and methamphetamine. Unemployed, she was living in Section 8 housing with a series of drug dealers. He approached the problem with the intensity of designing a new microchip and the tenacity he brought to the Air-Enduro, digging up records of the boyfriends' criminal backgrounds.
He moved to Dallas in September 1994 after the 5-year-old boy called him long distance to say his mother had been gone two days and he had no food.
In November 1994, mom and son again disappeared. Fish filed a missing persons report and, fearing Tommy was sick, posted huge pictures of him in hospitals and homeless shelters from Austin to the Oklahoma border. After a month, someone in the Methodist E.R. called Fish.
"He's in the ER and in an oxygen tent," Fish says. Sue had told intake that she had no money or ID and gave a homeless shelter as her residence. She'd left the hospital and hadn't come back.
Fish was awarded custody and had Tommy a year. After he decided he wanted to homeschool Tommy, the court returned custody to Sue.
Over the next dozen or so years Fish and Sue battled in court, accusing each other of assault and each asking for protective orders from the other. He called her a drug abuser; she called him an "obsessive-compulsive liar."
Fish's relationship with Tommy grew more tempestuous as he entered high school. Fish says that he had heard Sue tell Tommy that his dad was a "loser" and that he would do just fine without a college education.
"She said, 'Look where it got your dad,'" Fish says.
A relationship with Tommy was a problem Fish couldn't solve with differential equations.
Back in his North Dallas apartment, Fish pulls yellowed newspaper clippings from one of the banker's boxes stacked on his red bedspread; he laughs at the picture of himself with a luxurious black mustache and wearing a tuxedo. In the picture, he's just been auctioned off for $1,000 in a charity bachelor auction.
"I brought the most money," Fish says with his crazy laugh. He has not had a girlfriend for years, he says, not wanting to confuse his son with a "temporary mama."
A pack rat, Fish thumbs through old index cards with his ideas for inventions, the columns he wrote about education for a black newspaper in Austin, the business plan of a company he started in 1999 called Viametrix.
From one box, Fish pulls out a small T-shirt and a pair of sneakers, which his son wore when he won his first race. He tenderly removes each item and tells its story, then opens a tiny box: baby teeth put under pillows long ago.
After making his deal with Falk and Nanotronics, Fish had put the first payment, about $1 million, into a trust fund for Tommy's education. No income, no big deal. Even in flush times Fish had never spent much on himself.
"You wouldn't know if Russell had $100 in the bank or $100 million in the bank," says running buddy Ben Goldfarb. "I'm trying to talk him into buying a new car. He won't do it."
Fish's "retirement" meant he could concentrate on his passion: educating minority children. In 1997, he filed a lawsuit against DISD to get records of children's scores on diagnostic tests, used by the district to identify weak teachers. He contends that the worst teachers end up at poor inner-city schools where a few bad teachers in a row can condemn a child to a life of illiteracy. After a trial, Fish lost his fight when the district argued it would violate students' privacy.
But it inspired him to form the Open Records Project. The plan was to post public information on a Web site Fish created for the Dallas Examiner, an African-American community paper. It was one version of his grandfather's motto, "no law without light."
In 1998, Fish was approached about putting sex offender names and addresses on the Internet. After a long legal fight with the Texas Department of Public Safety and help from the Texas Attorney General, in April 1999 the "Texas Sex Offender Database" became the first free database of its kind in the country.
Fish says that by June, the Examiner's server was crashing several times a day. The traffic peaked in December 1999, at more than a million queries a day. He claims it was among the top 10 most accessed Web sites in the nation. Most states now post sex offender databases.
Kendall Clark, now working in artificial intelligence, encountered Fish at a meeting of people interested in the free software movement and free access to public information. He worked on the ORP.
"We bonded over that," Clark says. "Fish is a really smart guy. He was in the right place at the right time."
Clark calls Fish a good model for how geeks can be activists. Maybe geeks with money—problem-solvers, outside-the-box thinkers—will revolutionize the world of philanthropy. Because Fish is now what he calls "little rich," Don Quixote with money and a laptop.
On September 15, 1998, Fish was awarded a patent for a "High Performance Microprocessor Having Variable Speed System Clock." The Fish Clock.
In 2006, Fish filed a lawsuit against San Diego-based Patriot Scientific, which had acquired Nanotronics, for non-payment of royalties. Fish negotiated an agreement giving Patriot the right to license his portfolio of patents. (Fish received six patents from work he'd done in 1989.) In return, Fish agreed to provide proof that even though Moore's name was on the documents, Fish was the sole inventor of the clock and several other designs.
That set off a maze of suits and countersuits. But in May, Fish settled with Patriot.
Immediately Patriot filed lawsuits for patent infringement against Sony, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Matsushita and others seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Patriot contends that every computer chip that operates at speeds above 120 megahertz—meaning every PC manufactured after 1994 or 1995—has a Fish clock and the "multi-instruction fetch," another Fish patent.
To date, Patriot Scientific has sued more than 150 computer/semiconductor companies. Twenty-five, including AMD, Hewlett-Packard, Casio and Fujitsu, have agreed to license the patent; Intel alone paid $20 million. The litigation may be just beginning. Patriot CEO Wallin said, "We see this as applying equally to medical equipment, commercial equipment and other mass-produced consumer products."
Bottom line: "If you make a computer, you have to use my patent," Fish says. "This is the wheel."
When retired Apple executive Patrick O'Sullivan saw Russell Hamilton Fish III in the middle of a crowd of children in Kenya this July, he was struck by the look on his face.
"I have a photograph of Russell laughing in Africa, and it's real," O'Sullivan says. "It's joy. There are hundreds of children around him shouting his name. I would say it reveals his true self. Deep down—he will deny this—he's an emotional man but the engineer covers it up."
Earlier this year, after reading about Build African Schools, a nonprofit O'Sullivan set up, Fish contacted him.
"It was like an interrogation," O'Sullivan says. "Being the engineer he is, Russell wanted to know all the details. You can't do anything normal with Russell. He'll say, 'If I give you money, what 14 things are you going to do with the school?' My God, it's endless."
In 2004, while on safari, O'Sullivan had visited the Masai village of Oloolaimutia where people still live a traditional life surviving on cow's milk and blood. He started the Masai Education and Power Project to bring electricity and modern schools to the tribe. Thanks to solar-powered lights, children who tend cattle during the day can attend school at night. O'Sullivan persuaded Apple and Hewlett-Packard to donate laptops, printers, digital cameras and satellite Internet access to five existing schools and the next five, to be built in 2008.
Fish agreed to donate $75,000 to build two schools and then asked O'Sullivan if he could name the high school in honor of Tommy's 18th birthday. They had been estranged for months.
"He said, 'I want to try and build a relationship with my son,'" O'Sullivan says. "'If I can do something that would make him proud, that would be it.'"
The Thomas R. Fish Secondary School in Sultan Hamud opened this September.
Fish says the trip to Kenya was life-altering. He sees the project as nothing less than an opportunity to reinvent education.
"I have spent half of my life dealing with public schools, and for most of that I figured all it needed was a few little tweaks," Fish says. "No. It must be totally destroyed, burned down, plowed over and covered with salt. I'm not going to do anything else in the U.S. until we finish the African project. These are stone-age kids, but they can do math. We'll bring the kids over here and enter them into competitions and stomp the American kids."
Tommy is now attending college. When he turned 18, he learned about the trust fund. Fish gave him a certificate for a skydive and a copy of his patent application for the TOMI-VAC. "Is this real?" he asked his father.
Violating all his own rules, Fish has spent money on himself, installing granite countertops, special cabinets and new carpet in his rented apartment and buying a huge flat-panel TV that hangs in his bedroom.
His business plan is secret for now. "There are two large divisions of the semiconductor industry," Fish says. "There's memory and there's microprocessors. Those two don't cross over. TOMI-VAC combines the two and redefines both of those industries." He says negotiations for licenses are under way with several U.S. companies and foreign sovereign entities.
O'Sullivan has gotten so excited about TOMI-VAC that he has come out of retirement to work with Fish and Beth Blankenship, the CFO who has been Fish's business partner for more than five years.
A Highland Park native, Blankenship has worked in corporate settings and with entrepreneurs. A "gut feeling" prompted her to sign on for the long haul with Fish, who splurged on a birthday gift he knew she'd love: training with a SWAT team.
Asked why she believes that the TOMI-VAC, still in the design phase, will change the world, Blankenship just smiles. She doesn't. But she knows Russell Fish.
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