permission of The Dallas Morning News.
Richardson company reaches heights with
portable underwater computers
By Cheryl Hall / The Dallas Morning
RICHARDSON The man who gave the world the first
computer-on-a-chip is taking his inventiveness to new depths.
Michael Cochran, who co-invented the microcomputer at Texas
Instruments Inc. in the 1970s and then used this so-called miracle chip to
build TI's first handheld scientific calculator, is now strapping powerful
undersea computers around the wrists of U.S. Navy SEALs.
Last week, off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, members of the Navy's elite
special forces unit made the first official computerized decompression dives in
U.S. military history using dive computers made by Cochran Undersea Technology,
a small company tucked in the industrial core of Richardson's tech corridor.
The SEALs donned an "aggressive" version of a Cochran wrist-worn
dive computer already being sold to scuba shops that allows recreational divers
to go deeper, stay under longer and come up without getting the bends.
Divers need to know how long they can stay down at specific depths
and how to safely surface without forming nitrogen bubbles in their blood,
which can be painful or even cause paralysis. In very rare cases, the bends can
Once back on the surface, divers can download critical dive data
into a PC to track their progress.
But dive computers are no easy design feat.
"The ocean is a fairly hostile environment. Computers very much
don't like water," Mr. Cochran says in typical understatement.
The units have to run on a small battery and withstand enormous
deep-sea pressures, radical temperature changes and rough use all in a
package small enough to wear like a watch but large enough to be easily viewed
"These contradictory requirements are a real challenge, which is
what I like about this field," says the 59-year-old founder of Cochran
Consulting Inc., who, despite 70 domestic patents and several significant
inventions, has worked in relative obscurity for most of his 39-year
"Wow," was his one-word response to news last week that his dive
computer had passed several years of extensive testing by the Navy Experimental
Diving Unit in Panama City, Fla., and is now officially approved for SEAL use.
One last hurdle
Capt. Frank Butler, biomedical research director for the
Navy Special Warfare Community, says the new dive computers will enable the
military to make quantum advances in vital decompression research.
"If you get bent and I don't during a dive, we'll be able to use
the computer to check out exactly why," says the former SEAL platoon commander,
who was in Hawaii to coordinate the inaugural dives. "Calculating decompression
using tables and without a computer has been very difficult. This is a huge
step for SEAL divers and SEAL submerged operations."
Barring unforeseen problems during the next six months of actual
ocean use, the units would then receive the mighty stamp of approval from the
Navy and that would open up sales throughout the U.S. armed forces, as well as
to NATO forces.
"If all this comes to pass, this single product most likely will
double the size of the company in revenue and obviously dramatically increase
our profitability," says Mr. Cochran. "That global military market could be
very significant for us as opposed to the highly competitive and somewhat
limited recreational market that we've been in."
The company Mr. Cochran formed in 1986 is an unlikely hybrid: One
half builds undersea software and equipment, and the other half does
intellectual property consulting. Combined revenue could be as much as $15
million if the Navy business kicks in.
In one wing, 15 electrical, mechanical and software engineers
disassemble products, study detailed technical drawings and research the
intricacies of specific patents involved in infringement suits and licensing
On any given day, the high-minded group might be "unbuilding," or
reverse-engineering, talking toys, television sets, microwaves, PCs and, of
course, semiconductors for key clients such as TI, Motorola, Tandy and numerous
Asian semiconductor manufacturers.
The vast majority of infringement cases are settled out of court.
But if one actually goes to trial, Mr. Cochran and his staff testify as expert
The rest of the 20,000-square-foot building houses Cochran
Undersea Technology, where a staff of 40-plus dreams up, develops and assembles
new gizmos for the diving world.
The intellectual property half generates the profits sucked up by
expensive research and development needs of the dive half. But that may be
about to change as the undersea products take off.
Mr. Cochran, who was smitten by the scuba bug while vacationing in
the Bahamas 17 years ago, is pleased that his passion is about to become more
profitable, but that's not how he gauges success.
"Money is always good, but that's not what motivates me," he says.
"It's the opportunity to meet the challenge that gives me satisfaction."
Patent No. 4,074,351
Three patents hang in honor along the main hallway at TI's
Forest Lane facility: one for Jack Kilby's integrated circuit, another to the
team that developed the first handheld calculator and the third, Patent No.
4,074,351, issued to Michael Cochran and Gary Boone, for inventing the
On Feb. 18, 1978, The New York Times spotlighted Mr.
Cochran for his role in finding the elusive answer to putting more than 20,000
elements of a computer onto a single silicon chip. In the accompanying photo,
he holds the Times-dubbed "miracle chip" and TI's first commercial
product, a handheld scientific calculator that Mr. Cochran developed on his
Rather than getting a big head about his 15 minutes of fame, Mr.
Cochran was slightly annoyed by the publicity because he had to wear a
three-piece suit for the photo.
Michael James Cochran grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was
bored to death by high school, refused to do his homework and still graduated
in the top 10 percent of his class of 1959. What did get his mental juices
flowing was a job his senior year repairing TVs and radios for a neighborhood
So he went to technical school at the local junior college. He
took his graduation finals a semester early so he could take a job with a
missile project for RCA. For three years, he lived aboard ships tracking
missiles launched from Cape Canaveral, followed by a stint working on
monitoring equipment for the Gemini test flights.
"It was 'bleeding-edge' technology very challenging, no
politics or BS just damn the torpedoes and do it," he recalls fondly.
In 1969, while working for a start-up in California, Mr. Cochran
built a prototype of the world's first scientific desktop calculator, which
could do complicated algorithmic and metric functions and was about the size of
an IBM Selectric typewriter.
That invention won Industrial Research magazine's
designation as one of the 100 most innovative products in 1970, the same year
that steel-belted radial tires were honored.
During this project, he'd worked with engineers at TI who were
struggling to build a microcomputer a computer on a single silicon chip.
"TI called out of the blue and said, 'We want you to come help us get the ox
out of the ditch,'" Mr. Cochran recalls. He joined TI in Houston and threw
himself into the microcomputer project.
On the morning of July Fourth 1971, he looked into the microscope
and discovered that one of his test chips actually worked.
"It was really kinda funny, because it was a holiday and a Sunday,
and there was nobody to tell. So I called Joey," he says, nodding to his wife,
who now ramrods the day-to-day business affairs of their company.
Silver-certificate dollar bills
For that basic U.S. patent of the microcomputer and
for each of the other 38 patents earned at TI during his 13-year tenure there
Mr. Cochran earned a silver-certificate dollar bill.
"If you get a patent like that today, it's big bucks. But it
wasn't back then," he says. "When I had nearly 40 silver certificates, I said,
'Screw it,' and we went out and had a Mexican supper at El Fenix with them."
There is an inexplicable seven-year gap between the invention of
the microcomputer and the awarding of its patent to Mr. Cochran and his boss,
suggesting that TI might not have realized what it really had. Mr. Cochran says
only that it was a complicated procedure that got hung up at several junctures.
There were other hang-ups that led to his departure from the
company he still lovingly considers part family.
In the early '80s, Mr. Cochran tried to steer TI into the cellular
phone business, but his project was canceled. Then he made a breakthrough
toward creating a high-speed processor.
"But the world didn't need a faster processor or so my boss
said. The world needed artificial intelligence," Mr. Cochran says
sarcastically. "It was frustrating, and I didn't see that changing. When I left
TI, I was the company's Number 1 patent holder."
He quit but didn't stay away long. In 1988, Mr. Cochran, who'd
gone into consulting, ran into the head of TI's patent department, who needed
help with infringement issues involving several of Mr. Cochran's patents.
Mr. Cochran also had developed a bulky, underwater diver tracking
system used by NASA to train astronauts in a massive swimming pool that
simulated a weightless environment. He figured if he could compress the system
into something more portable, he could sell it to recreational divers.
In 1989, he married his patent consulting with the underwater
work, hired two employees and moved the company out of the couple's spare
bedroom and into 600 square feet of industrial space.
For the next four years, his patent consulting paid the bills
while he worked on his miniaturized undersea computer.
Finally, in 1993, Joey and Michael Cochran headed to the
scuba industry's annual trade show with the first-ever wireless, wrist-worn
dive computer. Their instant smash hit became an instant monumental problem
because their manufacturer abruptly backed out of the deal.
They had no experience in manufacturing, but Joey and Michael
decided to make the intricate computers themselves.
"It was a definite learning process," Joey says, laughing. "We
hired a million people and made thousands of mistakes."
The labor content was too high, the quality was poor, and the
company experienced severe cash-flow problems. In the midst of this turmoil,
Michael suddenly needed a kidney transplant.
Other than that, it was a walk in the park.
"But you can't stop when you have a tiger by the tail," says Joey,
casting a knowing glance at her husband of 36 years. "Michael did his dialysis
in the office and worked full time until the day before his transplant."
They never turned to outside money and steadfastly avoided
"vulture capitalists." Today, they own the building and everything in it.
The company has cut its workforce in half yet it produces three
times as much as it did in the early days with a return rate of less than 1
percent. Most returned units come back because the diver has opened the case to
see how it works, he says. "We call these curiosity failures."
Rusty Berry, CEO of Scuba Schools of America, one of the largest
dive retailers in Southern California, sells about 70 of Cochran's units a year
largely the higher-end $1,250 model.
"When it's a matter of life support, money is not much of an
issue," he says. "Cochran is the very best diving computer in the industry."
Cochran Undersea was booked up at last month's dive industry trade
show in New Orleans with dealers from around the United States and Canada
wanting to carry its line of wrist-worn and console-mounted computers, which
retail for between $250 and $1,500, and other equipment and software.
In the future, the name might expand beyond the sea. The company
is in the early stages of developing a small computer system that will help
firefighters monitor their air supplies and has a motion sensor that emits a
locator alarm if the firefighter becomes immobilized.
"The opportunity is huge," says Mr. Cochran, "bigger than the
undersea stuff and easier in some respects, because it doesn't have to
withstand the pressure of being 100 meters under water."
Cheryl Hall is business columnist for The Dallas Morning
News. Ideas at Work is intended as a forum for ideas and opinions of interest.