. . . Summer 2002
They weren't the kind you get at the fish market, but faculty members who belonged to the water polo club of that name that was founded in 1926 and is still going strong today. Many of these professors also officiated at swimming meets, and they were lamenting the state of that particular art.
"The deck was just a mess in the days before automatic timing," says Bill Parkinson '40, '48 PhD, then an assistant and now an emeritus professor of physics and the man who wound up solving the problem. "They had two judges per lane, so in a six-lane pool there were 12 judges, and three timers per lane, so that's another 18. In addition, they had a starter, a referee, and a turn judge, so the deck was just jammed with people."
Crowded, yes, but also inefficient. "The judging and the timing were terrible," Parkinson recalls. "A swimmer could touch under water or above, or could make a brush touch, and there was also a lot of splash, so the results of the judging were not always clear-cut. And the timing was worse. It varied as much as three-tenths of a second among three watches on a lane. In three-tenths of a second, a swimmer can move two or three feet."
A Polish attempt in 1926
Another of the lunching Flounders, Clark Hopkins, a professor of classical archaeology turned to Parkinson and said, "The last attempt to make an automatic judging system was by an engineer in Poland in 1926. He wasn't successful. Why don't you try it? I bet you can't make a system that works."
"That was enough of a challenge," says Parkinson, who set about meeting it, when he could spare time from his duties as teacher, researcher and head of the University's cyclotron laboratory.
The principal technical problem was the design of the plate a swimmer would touch to stop the timer. "What you needed at the end of the pool was an insulated switch-pool water has very high conductivity-which the swimmer would close when he touched the pad," Parkinson says. "It had to be very sensitive, so that a swimmer could come in and make a very light brush on it and still close the switch. At the same time, it couldn't respond to splashes and waves. It also had to be sensitive above and below water and across the width of the lane. That was the key to the whole thing-making those plates that would respond."
What Parkinson finally devised, briefly put, was a rubber pad filled with a special silicone oil, called DC-200, into which copper wires were sewn. "I probably looked up the properities of various oils in a catalog or handbook," Parkinson says, "although I really don't remember. DC-200 has excellent insulating properties; it doesn't interact with the rubber, and its density is slightly less than that of water, which allows the top portion of the plate to be above the surface of the pool."
The rubber provided insulation, the wires transmitted the information to the timing device, and the oil had the requisite density to respond to touches but not to the action of water. "It was solving the contact plate problem that prevented such a system from being developed much earlier," he says. "Once you have the plate, the electronics is trivial, it really is."
He and a few other Flounders wangled $500 out of Athletic Director Fritz Crisler to buy some supplies and pay a couple of Parkinson's lab assistants to build the prototype after hours. Parkinson also gave his wife, Martha, a sewing machine for Christmas that could stitch the copper wire into the pad in the requisite zigzag pattern.
First they made one big plate, just to see if the idea would work at all. It did. Then they made six plates, one for each lane, and started using them in Michigan varsity dual meets in 1957. The system's challenges became more sociological than technical, and acceptance was slow in coming. Although Gus Stager, the Wolverines' men's swimming coach from 1954 to 1979, was a staunch ally, most of his colleagues were resistant to change in general, and this one in particular. Olympic snafu turned the tide
Until 1960, when a controversy at the Rome Olympics turned the tide, so to speak. Stager was the coach of the US swimming team and watched with dismay as the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle was awarded to Australia's John Devitt over an American, Lance Larson.
"The films showed Larson winning," Stager says, "but the judges saw it the other way, and the timer saw it the other way, so that's the way it went. Of course, that became a real issue here in the United States. I think everybody realized there was a need for a better system. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. There wasn't any debate or anything. It just went ahead."
Parkinson's gear was used for the Michigan high school Class A championship meet in 1961, the same year he filed for its first patent. Early in 1962, the National Collegiate Athletic Association approved its use "for all swimming events for which it is available."
Around the same time, Parkinson, Crisler and Stager met with the head of a New Jersey firm called Swim Training Supply that was interested in manufacturing the system.
"The standard royalty at that time was 5%," Parkinson says. "I was sitting next to Fritz, and he leaned over and said, sort of sotto voce, 'I think we ought to hold out for 10%, don't you?' So it was 10%. Back then, we never thought of patenting our research, so I signed over the patent and all the royalties to the athletic department."
The patent was finally awarded in 1966. "When you filed for a patent in those days, you protected it by delaying as long as you could in having it issued," Parkinson says. His recollection is that by the time it expired in 1983, the athletic department had realized about $38,000 in royalties. But by that time, other companies, principally one called Colorado Timing, were producing automatic equipment that varied just enough from Parkinson's design to muddy the legal waters.
"They came along and took Bill's invention and copied some of it but improved on it," says Don Canham, who succeeded Crisler as athletic director in 1968. "That's what happens. There probably was patent infringement. I talked to the University lawyers and, in fact, to Bill, but what it amounted to is nobody wanted to go to court. The company just had so much more money to operate with than the guy the University licensed."
Besides, adds Stager, "It wasn't that much of an income for the athletic department."
Canham still can't help wondering how it might have worked out differently. "If Bill had been a better businessman or had more time, or if I had been in on it from the beginning, I would have made sure he did it differently," he says. "I was a marketer and I understood patents, but I got in on it after it had already been developed."
Parkinson's only financial regret, he says, is that "the royalties were supposed to go to the swimming program but Fritz just put them into the athletic budget. I don't think swimming benefited at all."
Except, of course, for a permanent and dramatic improvement in how races were decided and times recorded. Think how much better the judging at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics might have been if Parkinson had been a figure skater!
Jeff Mortimer is an Ann Arbor freelancer.