Propinquitous Obfuscation – trade secrets

From 1980, when Eldon Haines and Ralph Bartera started working on the Geyser Pump,  to 1995 no one else was able to make one work. Even though the patents were in the public domain and we had installed over 1000 systems throughout the US, and a few in Canada. The technology was widely publicized, in most  home and building related magazines, Popular Science, and all of the solar trade rags. We attended many solar conferences, gave papers, moderated other sessions, and installed many commercial systems for the National Forest Service. We know that several of our competitors tried to replicate the technology, but were  unable to make it work. I’ve blogged about this before. So, I started thinking about why they couldn’t do it.

We had trade secrets. There were things that we didn’t talk about, even though everything was in the patents and articles that were written about us and the technology. The things we didn’t talk about were well hidden from the outside by a thick veil of perceived obscurity. This was not something that we created intentionally. It was something that manifested in the eyes of onlookers because of who we were. First of all, Dr. Eldon Haines was an actual ‘Rocket Scientist.’ He worked for JPL (NASA). He was a nuclear chemist. He invented a neutron spectrometer that went on Lunar and Mars missions. I was studying physics at the University of Oregon. We worked in obscurity, in Eldon’s and then my backyard, testing prototypes. We didn’t have many visitors.

When interviewers asked us why we had no rivals, or when our dealers asked about why no one else could make geyser pumping work, we just mentioned that there were ‘trade secrets.’ In reality the only trade secret was that there were no trade secrets.

There were some important proportion issues, like the size of some parts of the system related to other parts, but there really weren’t any profound secrets that would have kept anyone from building their own geyser pumping system. The only thing that I can think of that may have stymied the attempts was that the system had to be perfectly hermetically sealed. It has to be built with the perfection of a refrigeration system. Any leak, no matter how small, will eventually kill the geyser pump effect, unless you’re running the system at atmospheric pressure and replacing any fluid lost to evaporation.

I think most attempts were abandoned because of the belief that there were trade secrets that only someone with advanced scientific knowledge would be able to fathom. If we had been two backyard yokels, with some plumbing ability, no one would have doubted their own ability to plagiarize our technology, but because there was the perception that we were brainy guys, others chalked up their failure to replicate a geyser pump to our propinquity to advanced knowledge.

The dominant reason we were able to make a geyser pump work was that we learned how to silver braze the non-sweatable fittings, and that we removed the sight-glasses and flow-meters that were prone to leaking. Once the system was sealed we discovered that after a week or so of working the boiling surfaces in the riser tubes had lost their ability to nucleate bubbles and the system over-heated. We worked on that problem for quite awhile, but eventually solved it, and patented the solution. Solution was the insertion of a slightly smaller diameter tube into the riser tubes creating a self-regenerating nucleation annulus between the inner and outer tubes. This still remains an enigma to us, but it worked so it became a fixture in the production models. I still wonder if it’s necessary or if we solved a problem that didn’t really exist. In any event, just the perception was enough to  obfuscate the simplicity of the technology.





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