Lee Davenport, A Technological Hero, Dies at 95: Here are His 7 Rules for Fostering Innovation

10/3/11Follow @bbuderi

Over the weekend, I learned that one of my heroes, Lee Davenport, had just passed away. Lee died of cancer at the age of 95 in his longtime home of Greenwich, CT. That’s where I first met him in 1994, when I was researching a book about the MIT Radiation Laboratory, the World War II lab where some of the nation’s best and brightest physicists secretly developed microwave radar—the most important technological weapon the U.S. and Britain brought to bear in the war.

Lee was an X-ray spectroscopist and all around electronics wizard. He interrupted his doctoral work in physics at the University of Pittsburgh to join the Rad Lab, where he helped lead development of the SCR-584 fire-control radar that tracked planes and buzz bombs and automatically relayed their position to anti-aircraft guns, saving a lot of Allied lives, soldiers and citizens. After the war, he helped build the Harvard cyclotron, and then went into industrial research, rising to become the head of research at General Telephone & Electronics (GTE) Laboratories.

All told, I did six formal interviews with Lee, three for the World War II book (The Invention That Changed the World), and three more for Engines of Tomorrow, a book about the management of corporate research. Afterwards, I saw him a time or two at conferences and when helping with two documentaries about the war, but we fell out of touch in recent years.

The New York Times ran a very nice obituary of Lee on Saturday. There are also some nice details in this article posted by Union College in New York, one of his alma maters. I urge you to read these for more of his story. But I wanted to share a few details that weren’t in those articles that showcase this remarkable and always-humble man—and I especially want to share his principles of innovation, which I think American corporations (or any corporation) would be well-advised to consider.

To start, here are some souvenirs of Lee Davenport’s life:

—Lee was once in a commuter plane crash, I think in upstate New York. He made it off the plane, but realized others were still inside. Dazed and hurt, he risked his own safety to go back and help several passengers or crew members escape. His wife showed me a newspaper clip recounting his actions, but I haven’t been able to track it down for this article.


Lee Davenport. Photo courtesy of Union College


—The GTE lab Lee oversaw was based in Bayside, NY. He spent 15 years as director in the 1960s and 1970s before retiring in 1980. GTE at the time owned Sylvania, and under Davenport, the lab created and patented the bright red phosphor later used universally in color TVs. I believe the patent was later sold or licensed to Sony and became part of its Trinitron technology.

—In 1963, as a publicity stunt while at GTE, Davenport appeared on the live television show I’ve Got A Secret, his secret being a way the lab had developed to transmit TV signals via lasers. The panelists failed to guess the secret, and he brought out the laser. Smoke was blown across the stage so the audience could see its light. Then Davenport interrupted the video portion of the live broadcast by blocking the light with his hand.

—Lee stayed incredibly active. One of the things he did in retirement was restore vintage cars in his garage. He then drove them all around in road rallies well into his 80s.

Lee, as I noted above, also knew some things about innovation. He came up with some basic principles about the subject for a series of lectures at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. Based on his lecture notes, and with his permission, I distilled them for Engines of Tomorrow and my own talks. I’d like to share them again with you here.

Lee Davenport’s Seven Principles of Innovation

1) Success is based on schedules and results—not effort, job difficulty, or loyalty. “You must expect your R&D people to produce results and reward them accordingly.”

2) Since most projects last several years, managers must break them into shorter segments, with measurable goals at each phase.

3) Never allow general goals. Avoid such words as: approve, advance, increase, investigate, study, explore. All are false goals—immeasurable.

4) Look for idea people. Only a few individuals have truly unique, even hare-brained ideas. Encourage them.

5) Find product champions—internal entrepreneurs who understand technology, explain it clearly, and can push ideas through corporate barriers. These traits typically elude top researchers.

6) Keep a little something on the side. A bootleg research budget is sometimes the only way to pursue ideas that break the mold.

7) Hire young blood. A research staff’s average age must not increase even one year per annum. In a high-tech lab, a nice average is under 35.

As I once wrote of Lee, “as a physicist and industrial research director, he has enjoyed a ringside seat on the electronics age—from tubes to chip, analog to digital. In war and peace, he’s seen ideas come and go—and come again. That gives him an all-too-rare commodity: perspective.”

Here’s to you, Lee.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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