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Grand Bio: Grand Lake man an autofocus camera pioneer

Bruce Knight
Grand Bio
Little biographies of large lives
Courtesy photo
Staff Photo |

Norm Stauffer, a resident of Grand Lake, holds 72 U.S. patents and numerous foreign ones. You may have met him at the post office. This is his story.

Norm’s boss, Roger Erikson, had his feet up on his desk when he said, “If you can keep these slides in focus, maybe we can sell some of the projectors that are piling up in the back storage room.”

Honeywell’s slide projector in 1965 was popping in and out of focus due to heat from the projector’s lamp heating up the slide. One week later Norm came back to Roger with a prototype that resulted in two patents and the solution to the projector’s woes.

Norm grew up in Hamilton, N.Y., where his father was a professor of biology and genetics at Colgate University. The area was rife with fossils from the Devonian Era, which he collected and brought back to his father. As a young man he thought he might just become a paleontologist.

At the age of 15 his interests moved to astronomy and photography. He proceeded to grind a telescope mirror and constructed a 6-inch telescope. He then made a camera specifically for taking shots of comets. Several of the comet pictures he took appeared in newspapers across the country.

The family had moved to Portland, Ore., where his father had accepted a teaching job at Lewis and Clark College. As a “faculty brat” there, Norm got a free ride through college. He majored in math and physics, which he felt were more marketable than paleontology, although he did dig up a wife there – Carolyn, a math major.

Together they moved to Eugene, Ore., where Norm did his grad work for his master’s degree under a Dr. Chen. Dr. Chen expected him to complete his doctorate there. Norm and Carolyn had other ideas, though, like getting a job and making some money, so Norm took a job in Pomona, Calif., for Convair, a defense contractor.

After a year of crowds and pollution they’d had enough. They hated Southern California. Out came a U.S. map and the couple decided on Colorado for many of the same reasons a lot of us did: good climate and — surprise, surprise — an infatuation with skiing.

Honeywell in Colorado told Norm to hop a plane to Denver and promptly hired him. They had developed and produced a seismic recorder called a Vistacorder, which they had Norm analyze. The technical analysis he turned in was over their heads; what to do with this guy! This is where his boss, Roger, turned Norm loose on Honeywell’s slide projector problem.

Back at Honeywell, they had been showing their new, modified slide projector at photographic shows. They had screwed down the lid to keep Norm’s improvements a secret. One guy from another manufacturer tried to yank the lid off of it to have a look and proceeded to flip the projector onto the floor. A Honeywell marketing guy was even propositioned by a woman trying to find out what the secret was. Norm was onto something, and Honeywell was starting to make money off of his grasp of the physics involved.

Career focus

In the ’60s and ’70s, autofocus for cameras was the Holy Grail of photography. Camera manufacturers and film developers had not let out-of-focus photographs turned into them go unnoticed. That statistic was about 15-20 percent of all photos.

Automatic systems had been developed for aperture (F-Stop) and shutter speed but not for autofocus. This was an extremely difficult technical problem. How to adjust to camera motion, subject motion (as in action photography), extremes of light level, contrast and a multitude of colors; this was no ordinary conundrum. Where do you even start?

An old machinist working for Honeywell, with half of his fingers missing, was moonlighting to photo shops making solenoids that synchronized flash units with the camera’s shutter. Honeywell turned a blind eye to his working out of their back door and started a photographic division. Norm had already been turned loose by his boss, Roger, to do “whatever the hell I wanted.”

What a dream job. Photography was his thing, and he was made the Manager of Research for Honeywell and its new photographic division. Roger, perhaps with his feet up on his desk again, told Norm, “If you can develop autofocus for cameras, I’ll see to it that you get a trip to Japan.” The carrot was placed in front of Norm’s nose.

Many years later and with around 40 autofocus patents to his credit, Norm had had enough trips to Japan. The Japanese camera manufacturers made beautiful cameras, and the first one to bite the bullet with Norm’s patents and take the financial risks involved to produce an autofocus camera was Konica. Norm has one at his house, with two windows on the front that use existing light and triangulation to focus the camera. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., also has the Konica C35AF on display as the world’s first production camera using autofocus that operates off of existing light.

Konica marketed the C35AF model in Japan first and it sold out on the first day. The Japanese are great lovers of cameras, as anyone visiting the Grand Canyon can attest. Norm and his team at Honeywell could not make the modules fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Research continued on Norm’s watch at work, to adapt autofocus to higher end SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, and many more manufacturers bought patent rights from Honeywell, which owns Norm’s patents.

One day, in the late ’80s, Minolta told Honeywell that they didn’t need to buy their modules anymore, that they had developed their own autofocus system. Norm took one of their cameras apart and found his ideas and patents in it. Apparently Minolta didn’t think Honeywell would sue. They were wrong.

The corporate lawsuit was in court for five months. Norm was on the stand for two weeks as an expert witness and worked as a consultant to Honeywell’s lawyers throughout the trial. Ultimately Minolta had to pay Honeywell about $100 million in restitution for patent infringements and another $50 million or so in legal fees, a lot of beans in 1992.

Norm has been retired for a long time now. He lost the love of his life a few years back. Carolyn was a major benefactor to the Juniper Library here in Grand Lake. He visits his four children and six grandchildren on the Front Range frequently.

Fishing is more than a hobby to Norm, especially with his own homemade flies and fly rods. He still dabbles in photography, especially of wildlife and the stars. He’s written a book called “Sky Shots from Grand Lake” and has his own small observatory on his property for which he has manufactured some of his own parts and tracking gear – go figure.

You never know who you might meet at the post office here.

Editor’ note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles about the fascinating people who call Grand County home.


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