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Monday, March 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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HP inventor infects others with desire to ask "Why?"

The Dallas Morning News

RICHARDSON, Texas — Christian Belady gets paid to mess with people's minds.

The 45-year-old "distinguished technologist" for Hewlett-Packard teaches the art of innovation to HP troops around the country.

Apparently, he's pretty effective. Last year, HP produced 1,797 patents, third behind only IBM and Canon Kabushiki Kaisha in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office proficiency.

Eight of those patents bore Belady's name. In the past six years, he's come up with more than 100 inventions to make computing hardware more powerful and energy-efficient. Patent No. 41 was issued Feb. 21.

"But that number is irrelevant if I haven't infected others with the passion for learning and innovation," said Belady at HP's international hub for supercomputing research and development next to the University of Texas at Dallas.

"My goal is to help develop the next generation of inventors who collectively will create more new ideas by a quantum magnitude than I ever could. This is what I hope my legacy will be."

Another legacy is even more important to Belady. He wants to teach his two children through the power of imaginative play — just as his father did.

He wants you to do the same.

Give children boxes and throw away the toys, Belady pleads. Toys that are too realistic and electronic games are numbing the creativity that has made Americans innovative leaders.

His 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter can't watch more than an hour of TV each day and must play outside for an hour — even when it's raining. Except for the formal areas, the family's house in McKinney, Texas, is in a perpetual state of mess with kid projects.

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"My son's friends all have Star Wars light sabers. He made his out of wrapping paper tubes that telescope. That's the kind of stuff I did as a kid."

His 77-year-old father, Laszlo Belady, a Hungarian immigrant and a founder of Microelectronics and Computer Technology of Austin, Texas, made Christian use his mental prowess to create playthings.

At age 8, Christian and his father built a stereo from a Heathkit do-it-yourself kit. When they turned on their masterpiece the first time, it didn't work.

"But by building it with him, I got so good at reading schematics that I found the missing diode from the thousands in the circuit," he said.

The next year, Christian wanted a go-cart like the ones his buddies were driving down the hills of Yorktown Heights, N.Y. His father tossed him three wheels in the garage and challenged him to make one.

"Mine had two wheels in the front and one in the back and was a deathtrap," he said. "It taught me the importance of stability."

And yes, Christian blew up his high school chemistry lab by pouring acetone into a beaker on a Bunsen burner. "From that I learned to always, always read the label."

Innovation is often the beautiful blossom of blunders.

"You have to give people the opportunity to take multiple roads, including wrong ones. You learn from your failures and do things better the next time."

Belady has trouble remembering any recent missteps. "Since I am an eternal optimist, I tend to delete all failures from my mind — another characteristic of an inventor," he laughed. "An optimist forgets the failures and gets addicted to the success."

He's been called a deviant, which he considers high praise. "Innovation is deviation. If you don't create an environment where people can deviate from defined processes, they can't innovate."

Like his father, he revels in going against the grain. "If someone tells me it can't be done, I immediately start thinking how I can do it. It's the same with my team here. We lock ourselves in a room and figure out a solution."

That happened in 2001, when HP needed a processing module with twice as many processors in the same space and with 10 times the thermal energy efficiencies. "We had a problem, and no one had a solution. We came up with one. It was a blast."

The most powerful tool in innovation is a one-word question: Why?

Why?

"Because when we question basic assumptions of what we think of as the norm, we find the opportunities."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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