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But not everyone is buying what Billings is selling. "Roger is very, very bright, but he's not as big of a deal as he says he is," says Stokes, Billings' former professor and computer consultant. Billings' 10-year patent-infringement lawsuit against computer giant Novell, which he gave up on last August, involved a patent Billings obtained on concepts that had been around for at least five years before Billings patented them, Stokes says. "He never should have gotten the patent," he says.
Billings' long-lasting lawsuit regularly made news, and Novell's attorneys delighted in making him look like a kook -- telling reporters, for example, that Billings lived in a cave and espoused polygamy. In fact, several online encyclopedias with blurbs about Billings' church contend -- incorrectly, according to Billings -- that he has 1,000 followers who believe in "multiple lives" and taking other men's spouses as "celestial wives."
But Billings has a way of inviting doubt. He has told several versions of the Lear story, for example. In a 1984 story in Forbes, he told a reporter that Lear had hired him as an engineer, then changed his mind about letting Billings work on hydrogen research, so Billings had quit in a huff. In the story he told the Pitch, Bill Lear mentored him for two years. His wife says they stayed with the Lears for about a month. Bill Lear died in 1978, but his son, John Lear, says he has never heard of Billings. "Should I have?" he asks. And John Lear has never heard the story about Thomas Edison acting as his father's mentor. "And I've heard a lot of stories," he says, chuckling.
Some alternative-fuel experts dispute Billings' hydrogen credentials as well, especially his claim to having created the first hydrogen-fuel-cell car. "GM did that in the '70s -- it was this big, clunky thing," says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis. "I know he [Billings] was a name and did some things some years ago, but he's not a big player now," Sperling says.
Last spring, Billings announced plans to buy the old Farmland Industries site, 450-plus acres off Kansas Highway 10 near Lawrence. He signed a letter of intent for a multimillion-dollar deal to purchase the property, announcing that he was going to create a factory that would manufacture hydrogen fuel cells. "We feel like we're real close to doing it," he told The Lawrence Journal-World at the time. Officials from Farmland said they were optimistic about the transaction.
But the deal fell through. Billings says he was unable to meet the requirements for mitigating the extensive environmental damage at the site in time to satisfy the bankruptcy court overseeing the sale for Farmland. "We worked night and day with the state in order to try to get it done, but in the end there just wasn't enough time," Billings says.
Billings could hardly believe it when President George W. Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address, announced that the U.S. government would provide $1.2 billion in funding for research to develop hydrogen-fuel-cell cars, houses and companies, including money to develop the infrastructure to support a hydrogen-powered society. The announcement was followed by pledges from GM and BMW to have hydrogen cars on the road within the next 10 years and lots of media coverage hyping hydrogen as the fuel of the future. "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free," Bush said.