Len Reiffel will turn 87 in a few days, and he’s still tinkering, still thinking, which is what inventors do.
“It comes from a sense of awe,’’ said the scientist who created the Telestrator, the bit of TV wizardry that gave sports broadcasting a booster shot of Ruthian proportions. “Everywhere I look, I see things that I don’t understand, in the deep sense. It can be anything from watching, say, a candle burn on our kitchen table. Inventing is a habit.’’
Reiffel’s original hand-crafted Telestrator, stored for decades in a closet of his Chicago home, goes up for auction next month, Oct. 17-20, with the Hollywood-based Profiles in History auction house (profilesinhistory.com). It’s Reiffel’s original gadgetized creation, a wooden box roughly 24 inches wide by 18 inches deep, that John Madden ran his stylus over in its TV debut at Super Bowl XVI inside the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982.
Reiffel, reached recently by phone, said he worked for years on a number of Telestrator iterations, but the one Madden used that January day (49ers 26, Bengals 21) ultimately proved to be the prototype that convinced CBS to order four more.
The age of color commentators drawing lines across your TV screen, better explaining plays with their squiggly lines and circles, was born. Madden’s stylus that day was a ballpoint pen, its ink cartridge hollowed out, a wire connecting it to Telestrator and production truck.
“It is the original, reliable, trustworthy Telestrator,’’ said a proud Reiffel, noting his sentimental connection to the Telestrator 100 Graphics Sensor Screen. “It’s the real McCoy in that very good sense.’’
Reiffel, who has led what he likes to a call a “variegated’’ career, for years was a NASA scientist and was a key contributor to the Apollo mission to the moon. He was also a longtime CBS science commentator, a career that he began at the urgings of a WEEI radio exec here in Boston and included TV analysis for CBS in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took man’s first step on the moon.
That’s right, the guy who helped with that small step for man and giant leap for mankind also gave the world its first close looks of blitzing linebackers and quarterback sneaks. Computer-generated graphics have largely replaced the Telestrator in broadcasts today, but back then, it drastically changed the sports-viewing universe.
“Certainly one of the fun things,’’ said Reiffel, asked to rank the Telestrator in his life list of career accomplishments. “It has been a career that has spanned a lot of things. I don’t really know how to characterize [the Telestrator] compactly.’’
Such is the challenge of an inventor’s “variegated’’ career. As a budding physicist, working toward his PhD at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Reiffel also worked on Operation Paperclip, the post-World War II initiative that funneled German scientists to the US. America wanted to retard Germany’s ability to rebuild after the war, and it wanted the Motherland’s sharpest scientific minds here to help spur US technology and innovation.
In the late 1950s, per orders of the Air Force and Pentagon, Reiffel headed Project A119, commonly termed the “Bomb on the Moon Project.’’
“It was a very tense time with the Soviet Union,’’ recalled Reiffel, reflecting on Cold War days and working on a team that included astronomer Carl Sagan. “The Pentagon was looking for things to show that we were not as helpless against the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons that the public might fear.
“Someone in the [Department of Defense] decided that maybe we could do a gesture that showed that we’ve got a rocket and a bomb that we could put all the way on the moon. They asked me to head a group to study the consequences and the utility of it. We concluded at the end it was too much of a stunt to even consider.’’
It was during his days as host of “Backyard Safari,’’ a Sunday morning TV science show for kids, produced out of Chicago, when Reiffel began to formulate his Telestrator idea. Graphics in those days, he recalled, consisted of studio cards, large pictures propped up on easels on the show’s set at WBBM. When Reiffel’s dialogue referenced an image of a turtle, bird, or landscape, he’d provide the voiceover as the camera turned to the picture.
“I’d say something like, ‘If you look a little closer in the lower left-hand corner, a little bit down from it, you will see a . . . whatever,’ ’’ recalled Reiffel. “That’s when I figured there had to be a better way. And that led, literally, to the first thing that became a Telestrator.’’
Reiffel worked through various iterations of his invention, ironing out the kinks, before bringing the polished model into the Super Bowl broadcast booth in Pontiac on Jan. 24, 1982. He was both proud and excited, even a bit edgy, standing there aside Madden and ready to jump in with a fix if things went awry.
But Madden drew, and talked, and drew and talked some more, and the day finished a technological success, an inventor’s dream.
“It still brings a smile to my face,” said Reiffel, a longtime Bears, Cubs, and Blackhawks fan. “John, as you might know, is a pretty big guy. I was standing with him through the whole thing. He got pretty excited on certain plays and he’d jump around. One had to be careful, or one would get knocked down by an aggressive lineman or something.’’
If you want to own a piece of history, Reiffel’s Telestrator soon will be up for grabs. Profiles in History has set a pre-auction price range of $12,000-$15,000.
Reiffel, 87 on Sept. 30, said he and wife Nancy figured now is the time to let it go.
“Getting a little old,’’ said the father of the Telestrator, “and we are looking at what we want to do with things. It occurred to me that it might be an interesting thing to put out in the world someplace.’’
Which is not to say Len Reiffel is retiring. He is an inventor, and that’s not what inventors do.
“My wife would say I am too busy doing inventions and things,” he said, “figuring out some way to pick a microscopic part of the world and change it.’’