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'Genius on Hold': An inventor, his jewel thief son and Steve Jobs

March 01, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Walter Shaw testifying before the U.S. Senate.
Walter Shaw testifying before the U.S. Senate. (Courtesy of Walter Shaw…)

Most likely you've never heard of Walter L. Shaw. But it's just as likely that his inventions have been a regular part of your life. 

Here are a few things Shaw invented: Call forwarding. Conference calling. Touch-tone dialing. The answering machine. A burglar alarm that calls the police. The White House "red phone" that provided an emergency link between Washington and Moscow. 

OK, so you haven't used the last one. But still, it's an impressive list of stuff conceived by a man awarded 39 patents who eventually died penniless and relatively unknown. 

Opening Friday is "Genius on Hold," a documentary that tells the story of Shaw that might be remarkable even if you didn't know it was made by his son, Walter Shaw Jr., one of the world's most notorious jewel thieves. 

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Hyberbole? No, that's straight from his official bio: "Walter T. Shaw is considered the world's most notorious (former) jewel thief." Shaw has been on a mission to get this film about his father made for almost two decades. 

"It’s a shame everyone knows the name of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs," Shaw said. "But they don't know about my father."

You'll have to see the movie to get the full scoop. But here's the tale in a nutshell. Shaw was an Italian American who indeed seemed to be a genius when it came to telecommunications. He began working for Bell Telephone in 1935 and over the next couple of decades cranked out invention after invention. He was so widely recognized that in 1954, President Eisenhower asked him to create the red phone. 

Alas, Shaw and Bell battled over his patents and the rights to his inventions. Eventually he left, and unable to make money from his own work, he found a new client: The mob. He created something called a "black box," which allowed people to make free long distance calls that couldn't be traced, according to his son. 

Other people would reverse engineer a version of this to create a similar device called a "blue box." Among the pranksters who created a "blue box" were a couple of guys named Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. 

"If it hadn’t been for the blue boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple," Jobs is quoted as saying in Walter Isaacson's biography. "I’m 100 percent sure of that."

In any case, Shaw would be called to testify in front of the U.S. Senate in 1971 about the use of the "black box" by gamblers. He was later convicted in 1976 on eight counts of "illegal phone usage."

Meanwhile, the younger Shaw grew bitter from watching his father get pushed around. As he got older, Shaw says he turned to some of his father's mob connections for work, which led to a career as a jewel thief in which the FBI blamed him for more than 2,000 heists accounting for $70 million in goods. 

After 11 years in prison, the younger Shaw was released and later found and reconciled with his father. 

"I have closure with my father, knowing I did the best I could to tell his story," Shaw said.

The movie debuts Friday at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles near Westwood Boulevard at 7:30 p.m. At the screening on Saturday, Shaw and director Gregory Marquette will do a Q&A after the show. The film is narrated by Oscar nominee Frank Langella.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook on 2012: 'We had the mother of all years'

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Follow me on Twitter @obrien.

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