A look back at a pivotal moment in MITRE's history. Above, Booker Brown speaking at the retirement event held in his honor.
If Booker Brown wasn’t an engineer by formal training, he was certainly one by intellect and temperament. The foresight to spot a need, the imagination to come up with a better way of meeting it, and the determination to see it through—qualities all good engineers must have—were second nature to him.
“When I’ve got something I believe I can do, I’ll stay up all night until I can get it done,” Brown said in a 2011 interview.
Because Brown believed (and acted), the U.S. Patent Office in 2011 awarded him patent number 8,074,401—Mechanical Arm System for Opening a Door. For the Alabama native and jack-of-all-trades, it was the crowning achievement of a long and varied MITRE career. It was also the first patent issued to a non-technical MITRE employee.
And it began, as did much of what Brown produced, with a colleague’s literal need for a helping hand.
In 2005, Brown was working as a physical security specialist based on MITRE’s Bedford, Massachusetts, campus. He was in the Special Security division, responsible for highly secure facilities, special programs, and sensitive and classified material.
One of Brown’s colleagues used a wheelchair and required help entering and leaving a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility (SCIF), which he needed to use for a project. As Brown recalled it at the time, “He sometimes needed to come in late at night, and there were only two people on the project.”
SCIF doors aren’t easy to open—and aren’t supposed to be. Because they protect high security areas, the doors require specifically designed locks, access control, and sound attenuation, and are held shut by a magnetic field that can require as many as 50 pounds of thrust to break. Moreover, accessibility technology of the time wasn’t designed for SCIFs. When Brown’s colleague tried to open the door by himself, the front of his wheelchair rose up.
Brown began looking across the country for a door that could be easily opened while still maintaining security standards the federal government mandates. But none were available, so he decided to invent one.
The catalyst for his invention came from an unorthodox place: a casino. During a visit to Reno, Nevada, Brown watched closely as slot machines were opened and serviced. He noticed that they used magnets moved by hydraulic action created by mechanical arms.
He had an idea: what if the same action could open a SCIF door?
Convinced his idea would work, Brown pitched it to Bob Nesbit—the head of what was then called the Center for Integrated Intelligence Systems, and a man he’d worked closely at MITRE with for almost 30 years.
In a recent interview, Nesbit said he recalled his reaction at the time: the idea was “typical of what Booker did …. If somebody needed help, he was right in there first in line to help them.”
Nesbit arranged for the MITRE machine shop to work on the device. After a little over a year of work (and much trial and error), they had their product: a hydraulic pump and hose assembly connected to an electronic control box, a hydraulic actuator, and a pivot arm, mounted next to the door. It was ready to be tested, but there was still one big unknown: if it failed, it had to fail with the door closed and locked, and the SCIF features protected.
Government officials who came to the Bedford campus to try out the mechanical arm were skeptical.
“They hadn’t ever approved a door like that with an automatic feature,” Nesbit said. “When it was done, they came up here, and I think they were here two or three days trying every failure mode they could. They couldn’t get it to fail anywhere other than closed, so they approved it.”
It was an outcome that came as no surprise to Nesbit.
“I was confident that there were enough good people at MITRE to make it work, and that Booker would be rather persistent until they did it,” he said with a smile.
From there, Nancy Brusil, then a database software engineer in the Special Security division, performed the initial patent research and prepared the patent application paperwork.
According to Debi Davis of MITRE’s Licensing and Intellectual Property division, the patent has five years left before it goes into the public domain but will remain available to anyone interested in it. Six subsequent patents have cited Brown’s work.
Even as he charged his way through a 42-year MITRE career that encompassed drafting, graphics, and security—and making time to earn his GED in 1982—Brown remained proud of his Alabama roots, which included marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. He looked forward to returning there, and, upon retiring from MITRE in April 2012, he did.
Sadly, there was not much time left; just six months later, Brown passed away at 65. But the way he used the time he had left an indelible mark on those who worked with him—like Julie Rouine, former manager of Special Security in Bedford.
“He would always try to meet people who could further his education or make himself better,” Rouine said recently. “He had a lot of pride in being from Alabama. He used to say, ‘I’m just a little old country boy trying to do what’s right.’ But he’d also say, ‘Never ask yourself, why me? Ask yourself, why not me?’
“Which, when you think about it, is an unselfish way to look at life.”
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