When Youngsters Stray Off to Parts Unknown, Woody Norris' Kiddie Beeper Seeks—and Finds

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

On a visit to Disneyland four years ago, Paul Norris, then 12, got lost. Paul had strayed from his parents and wasn't found for nearly six hours. "I wanted to try the choo-choo train and some of the other rides on my own," he explains. "It didn't occur to me that I was lost. I thought Mom and Dad were the ones who were lost."

His dad, Elwood Norris, 47, who has seven other children, found the experience excruciating and not one he wanted to repeat. An inventor with more than 100 patents and the owner of a small electronics firm in Salt Lake City, "Woody" Norris promptly repaired to his lab with a better idea: a kiddie beeper to keep track of wandering youngsters.

Officially it's called the Protek Guardian-I and comes in two main components—a plastic-encased radio transmitter about one-inch square and a book-size receiver. The tiny transmitter can be hooked to a child's belt; if it is removed or dunked in water, or if the wearer wanders beyond 300 feet, the receiver beeps.

With a directional antenna attached to the receiver, the parent can locate the child by following an intermittent tone that grows louder as it closes in on its quarry. The search range is up to a quarter mile, Norris claims, and doors and walls have little effect on the signal. "If a child is in trouble," says the inventor, "you don't want to waste valuable time looking in the wrong places."

Currently the Guardian-I is available by mail ($99.95) through Norris' American Technologies Corp. in Utah, and he hopes it will be in retail outlets soon. To those who accuse him of exploiting the national concern over missing children, Norris flatly denies that the Guardian-I is intended as an anti-kidnapping device. "That would be too sensational," he says. "Very few kidnappings actually occur and anyway, most kidnappers travel farther than 1,400 feet."

If his own brood (aged 6 to 21) is representative, Norris says, youngsters don't object to being wired up. "My kids play hide-and-seek with it, and the younger ones don't mind having the device put on their belts after school. They know that Mom and Dad don't want to search the entire neighborhood when it's time for dinner. Every evening I hang my receiver out the car window and cruise up and down the street to find my kids. It saves a lot of phoning."

Born in Cumberland, Md., a coal miner's son, Woody was always high on tech despite an early setback. At 9, he tried to fix the family TV set and in the process set it on fire. "Aw, it wasn't that big a deal," he insists. "A few things got singed. Anyway, I figured out how a TV set works." In his high school days he hooked up his Chevy with everything from a glove-compartment turntable to a working phone that was the envy of his girl-crazy buddies. "Me? I wasn't much into girlfriends," he admits. "I was too busy tinkering in the garage."

Norris enlisted in the Air Force to further his education, taking some electronics courses at the University of New Mexico. Discharged in 1959, he earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of Washington, married Cheryl Obde and got his big break as an inventor. Friends in Salt Lake City had formed a medical electronics company but had nothing to sell. Norris solved their problem by inventing the transcutaneous doppler, a penlight-size medical instrument that monitors blood flow. He sold its patent for $300,000.

Today his own company has four lab researchers plus a 52-worker factory in Hong Kong that turns out the goods. Two of Norris' most promising projects are Pocke Talk, a small tape deck that can record continuously for 12 hours (which he says has been sold to a Canadian audio publisher for $5 million), and a tiny radio that fits entirely inside the ear canal. NASA is sufficiently intrigued by the latter to ask Norris to work on a two-way version enabling users to talk and listen without mike or bulky headsets.

"Eventually," predicts Norris with the enthusiasm of a visionary, "we could have cordless conversations anywhere. A surgeon will be able to operate while consulting with a specialist halfway around the globe, and Dan Rather won't have to fuss with concealing that pesky wire behind his ear. This will revolutionize communications."

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