Marvin Johnson has a distinct twinkle in his blue eyes when he admits, "I really don't remember my first patent. Does that sound funny to you?"
It might sound funny, if Johnson were anyone else. For most researchers and engineers, being granted a patent is on par with winning an Olympic medal: It is a career-defining achievement. But Johnson, a 74-year-old research fellow with Phillips Petroleum, stopped keeping track of his patents a long time ago. That's because he has 212 of them to his name, with at least 8 more on the way.
Do the math: a 46-year career and 220 patents either issued or pending. That's more than one patent every three months for more than four decades. How does Johnson evaluate his remarkable performance? He starts with a wisecrack: "It's the same in patents as it is in having a baby. Conception is the best part of it."
Then he gets serious. "What's really important is finding solutions to problems. If you find a unique solution, then you have a patent," he explains.
Johnson's straightforward approach to innovation is at odds with much new-wave thinking about where great ideas come from. Innovators break the rules, right? Johnson is about as loyal a company man as you'll find. Today, he works part-time in order to accommodate the occasional urge to go off and explore other projects, but for the most part, he can be found right where he's always been — at the company research lab in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. This is a place that will never be confused with Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue. There are no splashes of multicolored paint on these walls, no scooters waiting to provide "inspiration" to free-spirited thinkers. Johnson's office contains a standard light-wood, L-shaped desk; a couple of floor-to-ceiling bookcases; and five or six framed awards on the walls. His lab is similarly austere, with its white linoleum floors, equipment carefully tended on counters and in cabinets, and charts and diagrams taped to the doors and walls.
So what makes Johnson tick? That's easy: He rarely meets a problem that he doesn't want to solve. "There's an endless series of problems, things that the company needs us to solve, and we go and do that," he says.
Some of those problems have been big. Back in the 1970s, faced with the twin challenges of dwindling energy resources and increasing pollution, executives at Phillips challenged their research team to find breakthrough solutions. Johnson developed new chemical agents for a process that neutralizes the harmful effects of nickel and vanadium in crude-oil supplies. Johnson's discovery made it possible for refineries to squeeze more barrels of gasoline out of each unit of crude oil, with less environmental impact. The process, which Johnson patented in 1983, earned him the coveted National Medal of Technology in 1985.
Most of the work Johnson does is about solving smaller, focused problems — and the more focused, the better. Johnson believes that his training in chemistry and engineering has influenced his research techniques. "The differences between chemistry and engineering are more profound than people think," he explains. "Chemistry is about exploring, but it is not about developing processes once you've discovered them. It's where the research starts. Engineering is very quantitative. It's about sequences of steps and descriptions of processes." Straddling these two disciplines helps Johnson combine the best of both worlds: the inquisitiveness of the chemist and the pragmatism of the engineer. "When I approach a problem, it's not enough to discover the nature of the solution. I want to apply it. I know that if I keep at it until I can describe everything with numbers and equations, then I will really understand it."
In that sense, Johnson's creative track record is really more about perspiration than inspiration. He likens the discovery process to solving "cryptoquotes," those newspaper puzzles in which the letters that make up familiar quotations are scrambled using a code that the reader is asked to decipher. Johnson used to be a devoted cryptoquote solver, but he admits that he rarely got a puzzle right the first time. "You have to have the patience to return to it," he says. "Play with it for a while, go do something else, then come back when you have a new idea. Each time you return to the puzzle, you pick up the same threads and weave a different cloth. Eventually, you get it right."
It's the same in the laboratory. "Do I remember things I worked on 20 years ago?" asks Johnson. "Hell, yes. That's the mind of a chemist. You have to have an incredible memory. I remember all the details, how and when I tried something and why it failed. That way I can revisit it every so often, and someday, it will all come together. There's a saying that I really believe in: 'Nothing has the power of an idea whose time has come.' That's a cryptoquote, you know."
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Sidebar: Lab Rat
Marvin Johnson, 74, keeps walking away from his familiar perch at Phillips Petroleum only to return for a new round of problem solving and patent generation. He's just a man who can't say no to a new idea.
Many of Johnson's patents come with titles such as "Hydrocarbon Steam Reforming Process" and "Sorption of Trialkyl Arsines." Not exactly the stuff of corporate adventure stories. In fact, Johnson's patents represent clear-eyed solutions to thorny problems — and the satisfaction that they bring is tough to walk away from.
"The first time I retired, I was 58," he says. "I went to teach at Oklahoma State University. But you know what? Universities are slow! They're collections of individuals doing their own research. I missed working for a big organization with smart colleagues who were all in it together, working toward a single goal. But it took me a few years to figure that out."
He returned to Phillips in 1989, three years after he left.
The second time Johnson retired, he was 69. "My wife had some health problems, and I wanted to help out. I also thought I wanted more time to do other projects," he says. "But then I got bored. I fixed up our house and realized that I didn't have anything to do with all that time."
Johnson returned to Phillips just six weeks after he left the company. His office was still waiting for him, untouched. "I think they knew I'd be back," he says.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.