Boeing Frontiers
November 2003
Volume 02, Issue 07
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools


Above: As a prolific inventor, John
Vetrovec has a vision of the
future. Next on his docket: a
concept in solid-state disk
lasers, which requires a lab with
equipment, including mirrors, to
evaluate the invention.
Like most inventors, John Vetrovec knows he can think of a better way. True to form, the skeptics always say it can't be done or isn't practical. He's learned to listen to them but not be swayed.

He developed his first invention when he was 20. Vetrovec, who had recently immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, had found a better way to make carpet-seaming tape used by carpet layers to make invisible joints. His Los Angeles-based employer wasn't so sure.

"They brushed it away and thought it impossible," he said. "Besides, they reasoned, 'what does this young kid who just came to this country know anyway?'"

Vetrovec developed a process that replaces woven parts of the tape with laminated fiberglass portions. The new process and equipment manufactured tape that was stronger, less expensive and could be produced 100 times faster. At age 23, Vetrovec received his first U.S patent, and the tape is still manufactured and sold today.

It was a lesson that stayed with Vetrovec, now 52 and a Boeing Associate Technical Fellow, through more than 50 publications, about 30 inventions filed at Boeing and 16 additional U.S. patents issued and pending. Four of Vetrovec's inventions brought him the 2003 Exceptional Invention Award from the Boeing Intellectual Property Business. He also won Special Invention Awards in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

"It's natural for people to be skeptical about new things," he said. "I've learned to become my own skeptic to strengthen my own arguments and rationales for my inventions."

He said he credits his inventiveness to intuition and readiness to take on challenging problems as well as the constant search for opportunities to innovate. "Often recognizing the opportunity can be more important than the technical work," he said.

Vetrovec's diligence and inventiveness have worked for Boeing in its quest to develop more efficient and compact lasers for the Advanced Tactical Laser program for Laser and Electro Optical Systems, an element of Missile Defense Systems in Integrated Defense Systems. "

We put a premium on people who are pathfinders like John," said Ken Kissell, LEOS vice president and program director. "We're exploring uncharted territory and our inventors help to show us the way."

LEOS and Vetrovec's efforts center on finding a way to make high-energy chemical lasers practical for tactical uses. Until now, these lasers required large amounts of chemical reactants, gave off an exhaust signature to adversaries and required a way to dispose of spent chemicals.

His recent inventions attempt to overcome these obstacles by developing an electrochemical process that regenerates spent fuel into fresh and a sorption vacuum pump that captures laser exhaust gasses.

Once again, the inventor beat the skeptics.

"Even after successful bench-top experiments, the skeptics did not believe our lab hardware could be scaled. But we pressed ahead and by 1999 we were able to demonstrate these new technologies at substantial scale," Vetrovec said.

Vetrovec's inventions are making a significant contribution toward producing practical laser weapons for future U.S. military inventory.

"There aren't any high-energy lasers in field use now," Kissell said. "Not only are we trying to develop them, but we're trying to stay ahead of the competition."

Long before Vetrovec became interested in lasers, he developed a passion for inventing. In first grade, he bought a book on famous inventions. The bookstore clerk thought the young Vetrovec was buying the book as present for his father. Instead, the young inventor set out to mimic the works of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse Jr.

"The stories inspired me to build steam engines, turbines, electric motors, batteries, telegraphs, telephones, radios, model airplanes and rockets," Vetrovec said. "My father joked I was reinventing what was already invented, but in the process I learned how things worked and how ideas were evolved."

He still has the book that fired his imagination.

Vetrovec ran away from home at 18 and escaped from his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1968. He landed in New York three months later with only $2 in his pocket. By the end of 1969, he wound up in Los Angeles with a desire to study, invent and work in high technology.

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics at UCLA and almost finished a doctorate in abstract mathematics when he took a job at TRW in Redondo Beach, Calif. Vetrovec began working on high-energy lasers and became so enthusiastic about this new technology that he abandoned his doctorate and instead obtained an electrical engineering master's degree in plasma physics and electro-optics.

During the 1980s he worked on the problems of nuclear fusion and spent two years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory developing the Ground-Based Free Electron Laser. In 1988, Vetrovec joined Boeing to develop the chemical oxygen iodine laser for the Airborne Laser program. More recently, he was an Integrated Product Team lead for booster separation and lethality for the Ground-Based Interceptor program for National Missile Defense. His current focus is in solid-state lasers that show strong potential for a variety of applications.

"I think lasers will change the course of warfare because of their speed-of-light precision engagement," Vetrovec said. "Many of the advances we make in high-power military lasers also have commercial applications such as in cutting, drilling and welding, especially in the aerospace and automotive industries. I believe laser cutting and welding will eventually replace shears, saws, drills and rivets in aircraft production."

He said he is convinced the company is moving in the right direction by awarding inventors acclaim and monetary rewards, though he thinks money is not always the key motivating factor.

"The feeling of having contributed something important is what really makes inventors tick. The association and collaboration with other innovators is also highly enriching and rewarding," he said.

The Intellectual Property Business directs the Special and Exceptional Invention Awards that recognize inventors for their work and the contributions they make to Boeing, said Gene Partlow, vice president for the Intellectual Property Business.

"We have inventors like John Vetrovec developing amazing, often groundbreaking technology all over Boeing. By recognizing these achievements through the invention award program, we hope to encourage more creative thinking," Partlow said.

Vetrovec sees a new role for himself in promoting creativity among younger inventors in the company.

"We need to breed the next generation of innovators," he said. "I see part of my job in the coming years inspiring other people to be creative. I believe that everyone can be innovative given the right environment, motivation, encouragement, guidance, and training to search for opportunities. Together we can keep Boeing a technology leader in aerospace."


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