Marvin McInnis: Conquering the Expanding Frontier of Ignorance

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By: Beth Cook

Marvin McInnis considers himself a 45th year senior. Currently he’s taking a metal and silversmithing class at Johnson County Community College.

Although Marvin McInnis has studied aeronautical engineering at both the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Oklahoma, he never received a degree. He didn’t need one. In some ways, Marvin has been a student his entire life, “I’ve always thought that people who understand something beyond their specialty are more productive and interesting,” he told me Saturday afternoon while sitting in his living room. “Of course, “ he says, “the more you know, the more you don’t know.” Mr. McInnis went on to tell me that he was fortunate enough to study physics under Richard Feynmen at Caltech who once referred to education as the “discovery of an expanding frontier of ignorance.” This constant quest for knowledge has led Marvin McInnis on a lifetime journey of invention and innovation.

 

While taking engineering classes at the University of Oklahoma, Marvin worked part-time at a local television station. There he became acquainted with the broadcast industry. The Chief Engineer, and Marvin’s supervisor, Hue Abfalter, encouraged Mr. McInnis to problem solve and gave him the freedom and resources to work on his own projects. It was there that Marvin invented a distribution amplifier that revolutionized the way the television station was able to time commercials and programming.

 

Marvin continued teaching himself digital electronics and control systems and eventually went to work for a private company developing Sony Video Cassette Players. In 1972, McInnis left the company and started exploring digital software and came across information on microprocessors. One of his first microprocessor projects was to design and build telephone-answering systems for large companies. During that time he was also engaged to design and supervise the installation of the Broadcast Journalism Laboratories at the University of Oklahoma School of Journalism. The School also requested that Marvin join the faculty, but he declined. “I was interested in so many other things,” he told me, “and I felt that not having a degree would eventually be important.”

 

Marvin partnered with Judith Skinner in 1976 to form McInnis-Skinner & Associates. They were contracted to develop software for a leading weather consulting firm that would collect and categorize incoming weather data. The successes of this project lead Marvin to ask himself, “If we have all this information and have it organized, can’t we translate it to video?” He committed to do just that and in 1979, presented the new software at the National Association of Broadcasters’ Convention. McInnis-Skinner was the first company in the country to develop software that showed live weather in graphical form that could be displayed behind the meteorologist.

 

McInnis-Skinner was sold in 1983 and Marvin opened up his own business as a software developer and consultant. In 1991 he developed the First Alert Severe Weather Warning System. In the 1990’s, when the National Weather Service issued a tornado alert, it took 8-10 minutes for that information to be disseminated to television viewers. Being a lifetime resident of Oklahoma, Marvin knew how precious each minute could be to those in the warning area. He made his goal for the project to bring that time down to 8 seconds. He achieved that goal. The first day the system was used in the spring of 1991, there was a severe thunderstorm warning at 11:30 a.m., and by mid-night there were 23 tornado warnings in the area. Not only did the system work perfectly, no other station in the area was able to keep up. That summer the ratings skyrocketed for that station during severe weather and Marvin was awarded an Emmy in 1992 for Engineering Achievement.


Marvin McInnis, 1992. Photo by Jerry D. Rees

 

Mr. McInnis told me he was most proud professionally of the First Alert system, not only because it has been so successful, but also it’s added value to the health and human safety aspect. “It provided real benefit to the public,” he said. “First Alert forever changed the way severe weather is presented. Besides,” he continued, “it’s always fun to turn on the TV and see it.”

4 Comments on Marvin McInnis: Conquering the Expanding Frontier of Ignorance

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