I Want My Dollar!
When I was at Cornell I would often come back home to Far Rockaway to visit. One time when I happened to be home, the telephone rings: it’s LONG DISTANCE, from California. In those days, a long distance call meant it was something very important, especially a long distance call from this marvelous place, California, a million miles away.
The guy on the other end says, “Is this Professor Feynman, of Cornell University?”
“This is Mr. So-and-so from the Such-and-such Aircraft Company.” It was one of the big airplane companies in California, but unfortunately I can’t remember which one. The guy continues: “We’re planning to start a laboratory on nuclear-propelled rocket airplanes. It will have an annual budget of so-and-so-many million dollars …” Big numbers.
I said, “Just a moment, sir; I don’t know why you’re telling me all this.”
“Just let me speak to you,” he says; “just let me explain everything. Please let me do it my way.” So he goes on a little more, and says how many people are going to be in the laboratory, so-and-so-many people at this level, and so-and-so-many Ph.D’s at that level …
“Excuse me, sir,” I say, “but I think you have the wrong fella.”
“Am I talking to Richard Feynman, Richard P. Feynman?”
“Yes, but you’re …”
“Would you please let me present what I have to say, sir, and then we’ll discuss it.”
“All right!” I sit down and sort of close my eyes to listen to all this stuff, all these details about this big project, and I still haven’t the slightest idea why he’s giving me all this information,
Finally, when he’s all finished, he says, “I’m telling you about our plans because we want to know if you would like to be the director of the laboratory.”
“Have you really got the right fella?” I say. “I’m a professor of theoretical physics. I’m not a rocket engineer, or an airplane engineer, or anything like that.”
“We’re sure we have the right fellow.’
“Where did you get my name then? Why did you decide to call me?”
“Sir, your name is on the patent for nuclear-powered, rocket-propelled airplanes.”
“Oh,” I said, and I realized why my name was on the patent, and I’ll have to tell you the story. I told the man, “I’m sorry, but I would like to continue as a professor at Cornell University.”
What had happened was, during the war, at Los Alamos, there was a very nice fella in charge of the patent office for the government, named Captain Smith. Smith sent around a notice to everybody that said something like, “We in the patent office would like to patent every idea you have for the United States government, for which you are working now. Any idea you have on nuclear energy or its application that you may think everybody knows about, everybody doesn’t know about: Just come to my office and tell me the idea.”
I see Smith at lunch, and as we’re walking back to the technical area, I say to him, “That note you sent around: That’s kind of crazy to have us come in and tell you every idea.”
We discussed it back and forth—by this time we’re in his office—and I say, “There are so many ideas about nuclear energy that are so perfectly obvious, that I’d be here all day telling you stuff.”
“Nothin’ to it!” I say. “Example: nuclear reactor … under water … water goes in … steam goes out the other side … Pshshshsht–it’s a submarine. Or: nuclear reactor … air comes rushing in the front… heated up by nuclear reaction … out the back it goes … Boom! Through the air—it’s an airplane. Or: nuclear reactor … you have hydrogen go through the thing … Zoom!—it’s a rocket. Or: nuclear reactor … only instead of using ordinary uranium, you use enriched uranium with beryllium oxide at high temperature to make it more efficient … It’s an electrical power plant. There’s a million ideas!” I said, as I went out the door.
About three months later, Smith calls me in the office and says, “Feynman, the submarine has already been taken. But the other three are yours.” So when the guys at the airplane company in California are planning their laboratory, and try to find out who’s an expert in rocket-propelled whatnots, there’s nothing to it: They look at who’s got the patent on it!
Anyway, Smith told me to sign some papers for the three ideas I was giving to the government to patent. Now, it’s some dopey legal thing, but when you give the patent to the government, the document you sign is not a legal document unless there’s some exchange, so the paper I signed said, “For the sum of one dollar, I, Richard P. Feynman, give this idea to the government …”
I sign the paper.
“Where’s my dollar?”
“That’s just a formality,” he says. “We haven’t got any funds set up to give a dollar.”
“You’ve got it all set up that I’m signing for the dollar,” I say. “I want my dollar!”
“This is silly,” Smith protests.
“No, it’s not,” I say. “It’s a legal document, You made me sign it, and I’m an honest man. There’s no fooling around about it.”
“All right, all right!” he says, exasperated. “I’ll give you a dollar, from my pocket!”
I take the dollar, and I realize what I’m going to do. I go down to the grocery store, and I buy a dollar’s worth—which was pretty good, then—of cookies and goodies, those chocolate goodies with marshmallow inside, a whole lot of stuff.
I come back to the theoretical laboratory, and I give them out: “I got a prize, everybody! Have a cookie! I got a prize! A dollar for my patent! I got a dollar for my patent!”
Everybody who had one of those patents—a lot of people had been sending them in—everybody comes down to Captain Smith: they want their dollar!
He starts shelling them out of his pocket, but soon realizes that it’s going to be a hemorrhage! He went crazy trying to set up a fund where he could get the dollars these guys were insisting on. I don’t know how he settled up.