Necessity remains mother of invention

Published 9:58 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

Here’s a sentiment that helped make America great: Necessity is the mother of invention.

Ted Conley offers a fine example.

Conley, a 48-year-old software engineer, was laid off from a large financial services firm in February 2009.

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With four children to support — two teenage daughters from a prior marriage and a young daughter and son from his current marriage — he began looking for work immediately.

His 3-year-old son, Pierce, added to his worry.

Pierce suffers from cerebral palsy (CP), a form of paralysis believed to be caused by a prenatal brain defect or injury, and cortical vision impairment (CVI), also caused by a brain defect.

With CP, normal pathways in the brain are damaged. Children suffering the illness have limited motor skills and difficulty processing basic information.

Rigorous therapy, however — physical, occupational and speech — can establish new pathways in the brain.

However, Conley was shocked by the “Stone Age” devices therapists were using to train his son.

One device uses a large, bright, colored button that, when pressed, plays a single recorded word: “thirsty” or “hungry.” The child is taught to press the button to communicate thirst or hunger.

“To help our son communicate basic messages, such as ‘I want more eggs,’ therapists had us take a picture of the eggs, print it out, laminate it and tape it to the button!” says Conley.

Pressing the large buttons is another challenge, requiring motor skills that younger children with CP have not yet developed.

Conley searched high and low for more advanced devices, but found none. He concluded he’d have to build them himself.

But he faced other challenges. Despite 25 years of software-engineering experience — despite a master’s degree in software engineering from prestigious Carnegie Mellon University — job offers were not forthcoming.

Eager to preserve his family’s savings, he took odd jobs — painting, repairing drywall, wiring security systems — while he pounded the pavement for work in his field.

One evening, while struggling through a therapy session with his son, he’d had enough.

He bought a Mac Mini and joined Apple’s iPhone developer program. He began working day and night to develop a better solution.

Four months later, he launched TapSpeak Button, a simple-to-use application that teaches simple messages — about thirst, hunger, etc. — on an iPhone or iPad.

“It allows parents take a picture of eggs and instantly upload it into the program,” says Conley. “It requires very little skill for a child to touch t he picture on the screen and cause the recorded message, ‘more eggs,’ to play.”

Conley quickly discovered he was onto something. More than 50 speech therapists at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children and other organizations were ecstatic to learn he was developing modern training solutions.

Conley’s wife began marketing the $10 application ( Sales began coming in from all over the world.

Though his TapSpeak products are moving in the right direction — he’ll soon introduce TapSpeak Sequence and TapSpeak Choices — the revenue is not yet enough to sustain his family. Without outside investment, he’ll need to return to a corporate job.

“The fact is the earlier and more effectively you train a disabled child, the more dramatic the results,” says Conley. “Our passion is to perfect solutions that will help my son, and, hopefully, many others, improve as quickly as possible. We have no choice but to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of that goal.”

Ah, yes — a challenge, a father’s determination, a solution. Such is the genius that made America the most innovative, prosperous nation on the planet — the genius we need plenty more of to get our economy going again.

I told you Ted Conley offers a fine American example of necessity being the mother of invention.

Tom Purcell is a freelance writer is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at