TechTonics: David Monroe, the San Antonian Who Invented the Cellphone Camera

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David Monroe in front of tesla coils.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

David Monroe stands in front of active Tesla coils at his museum highlighting electronics that have shaped the world.

David Monroe’s glass-encased artifacts span centuries of the technological past – Tesla coils, an Enigma machine, Edison lightbulbs – but behind Monroe’s own cracked smartphone screen is an invention of his own, one that might end up in a future iteration of the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology he founded: the cellphone camera.

All told, 53 U.S. patents bear Monroe’s name. Skype and FaceTime came out decades after Monroe helped develop videoconferencing technology as a lead technologist at Datapoint Corp., a San Antonio computing company that became a billion-dollar enterprise before fading during the PC boom and eventually going out of business. He contributed to the creation of the first local area network, interestingly called Internet among the engineers at Datapoint. And he led a project to connect 40 buildings in Northwest San Antonio via what Monroe and his colleagues believe was the first Wi-Fi network.

“So much of what we look at today, San Antonio was at the forefront of it. Datapoint was the pioneer, and David Monroe was right in the mix of every one of those,” said John Strieby, a former vice president at the company who now sits on the board of SAMSAT.

Monroe first conceived of the museum in 2013 and operated it out of the headquarters of E-Watch, his former company, until moving SAMSAT to Port San Antonio in 2017. It began with Monroe’s collection of telecommunications devices from yesteryear, electrical artifacts, teletypewriters, and some of the earliest iterations of the desktop computer.

John Paul Castro examines the Morse Telegraph exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

John Paul Castro examines the Morse Telegraph exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology.

Now 66, Monroe hopes to realize the vision of SAMSAT in the next couple of years: to have a state-of-the-art STEM hub at the Port, featuring not only a fleshed-out version of his museum (the past), but also a showroom for homegrown technology (the present) in the cybersecurity, robotics, and aviation industries, and a maker space stocked with the tools to build the innovations of the future.

Monroe developed a curiosity for technology at a young age. “If you’d ask my mother she would have said since before I knew how to walk,” he said. “She has pictures of me playing with extension cords and light bulbs when I was really young. I was attracted to tech before I knew what engineering and patents even were.”

As a precocious 5-year-old in Wichita, Kansas, Monroe found a book, titled The Boy Electrician, at the public library whose illustrations of spark coils and electric telegraphs stirred his imagination. He wanted to borrow the book, but the librarian refused. The book was too advanced for him, she said. Only kids who could read could check it out.

A determined Monroe learned to read with his mother’s instruction, returned to the library, and after some protestations, received the book on loan. Thanks to its directions and depictions, Monroe was able to build telegraph systems, switches, and ignition sparks found in the original Ford Model T. For his seventh-grade science fair project he made a Tesla coil.

That relentless enthusiasm for tinkering, building, and creating helped set him on a course to the world of computing in the 1970s, just before the dawn of the personal computer revolution.

When Monroe enrolled for his freshman year at the University of Kansas in 1970, there was one computer on campus, and only upperclassmen and graduate students could use it. Monroe petitioned his department head, Earl Schweppe, so that he could take Introduction to Computers, an upperclassman course at the university, but Schweppe refused. Focus on getting good grades in your basic courses, Schweppe told Monroe, and you’ll be able to get your hands on a computer your junior year.

Frustrated with the decision, Monroe turned to his physics adviser, who told him to take a special three-hour lab course. “You can go down in the lab with the grad students,” Monroe remembers his adviser telling him. “They’ve got a computer terminal they’re always writing programs on. So you could fool with the computer down there. Write a report, and I’ll give you a grade.”

Monroe ended up making that lab his second home. Using a microwave spectrometer, which uses electromagnetic radiation to study matter, Ph.D. candidates bounced microwaves off a crystal and measured their resonance. Monroe’s job was to plot the curve of the electromagnetic waves. After doing it a handful of times, the novelty began to wear off, so Monroe decided, instead of manually plotting the curve by weighing it, to computerize the process. The breakthrough earned the university a $2 million National Science Foundation grant to help integrate computers in the University of Kansas’ chemistry and physics departments, Monroe said.

Suddenly, Schweppe and the department were interested in speaking to Monroe. The professor invited the student over for dinner with his family after a celebration of the grant award, and the two became good friends after that.

Schweppe sent out a letter to 100 computer companies in 1970 asking if they had a desktop computer the students could use, Monroe said. The only response he received was from Computer Terminal Corp. in San Antonio, later to be known as Datapoint.

A Datapoint salesperson took one of four hand-built prototypes of a computer to the University of Kansas. When it arrived, Schweppe and Monroe sat in Schweppe’s dining room programming the machine long into the night.

“Dr. Schweppe reached out to the VP of engineering at Computer Terminal and said, ‘You ought to hire this kid for an internship this summer,'” Monroe recalled. “That’s how I moved to San Antonio and became affiliated with Datapoint.”

Strieby met Monroe in 1975, when the software developer was in his early 20s.

“He was very young, as was I,” Strieby said. “He had a high energy and a real creative commitment to solving hardware and software challenges related to the ongoing development of Datapoint’s product line at the time.”

It’s a subject of dispute, but Monroe and Datapoint may have played a part in developing the first personal computer. In the 1970s, the company contracted with Intel, then a Bay Area startup, to develop what many in the company believe was the first microprocessor – an invention that laid the foundation for the first desktop computer and, thus, the dawn of the PC era in computing.

“It was a $50,000 bill for that microprocessor that Datapoint couldn’t pay,” Strieby said. “That was before it became a billion-dollar company. The innovation was clearly here in San Antonio, and David was right in the middle.”

Lamont Wood, author of Datapoint: The Lost Story of the Texans Who Invented the Personal Computer Revolution, said the company went under in part because its leadership failed to see the potential of the consumer market. Instead, the former Fortune 500 company declined in the 1980s when it stuck by its model of selling enterprise-grade machines to businesses, he said.

“It doomed them,” Wood said. “Their entire approach to business was based on that – how they priced, sold, and marketed their products, the salesforce they had. Everything went down that path; they just couldn’t change course.”

Monroe saw the writing on the wall and left the company for greener pastures in 1981. His patents were all awarded after his time with Datapoint – his supervisor at the company wasn’t a proponent of filing patents, he said – when he would work with the FBI to develop image transmission systems that ultimately evolved into the cellphone camera. This technology led to the founding of Monroe’s first company, PhotoTelesis Corp., which later pivoted to a spinoff company focusing on digital security systems – E-Watch. Throughout his career, one thing remained constant: his relentless pursuit to make life easier through technological advancement, Strieby said.

“David is a very innovative person,” he said. “His approach is to solve problems, not to develop technology and then look for an application.”

David Monroe holds up what is possibly the first camera phone in existence. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

David Monroe holds up the first camera phone in existence.

It’s that passion for science, technology, engineering, and math that he now aims to share with children and adults in San Antonio. In conjunction with SASTEMIC, a local nonprofit focused on STEM education, SAMSAT hosts summer camps that expose students to such things as electronic music and robotics.

Monroe and other technologists at the Port, including local robotics startup Reckon Point, organize industry meetups for professionals and hobbyists in the areas of robotics, drones, and other hardware-geared subjects.

Within the next year and a half the Port aims to construct a 130,000-square-foot building that would house a coworking space, makerspace, indoor arena for robotics and gaming, classrooms, the museum, and a showroom, said Jim Perschbach, Port president and CEO, but there are “a lot of negotiations … and hard work” that must take place before it comes to fruition.

A key part of that ambitious plan, however, is already in place, Perschbach said, referring to Monroe. The SAMSAT founder never takes a Saturday off, so he can open his museum to patrons of all ages and share his knowledge and enthusiasm for tech with them. Through Monroe’s zealous advocacy for STEM, San Antonio can be exposed to the innovation happening in the city and what its inhabitants are capable of, Perschbach said.

“What David is doing is taking a lifetime of experience,” he said, “and he’s offering to give that back not just to the next generation but to San Antonio.”

3 thoughts on “TechTonics: David Monroe, the San Antonian Who Invented the Cellphone Camera

  1. I am fortunate enough to know David personally, and he IS everything the author said: laser-focused on inspiring STEM students in San Antonio to spawn the next generation of innovation here. He’s just a great guy and a great asset to this area!

  2. I have heard some of this information before and cannot figure out why San Antonio has not made more of the story. If I recall correctly, I understand that the ubiquitous @ sign in an email address was actually originated by a team here in San Antonio; a San Antonian was also an early pioneer in modems. We should do more to celebrate our tech history.

  3. David Monroe is truly a blessing to San Antonio. Not only for his technology genius, but more importantly for his passion and commitment to improve the lives of children and their families!

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