A Tinkerer Named Sam

A look at Sam Runco, the man behind some of the most dazzling developments in home theater.

You won't find his name in an Ivy League Who's Who—this son of the Pennsylvania coal fields never made it to college. Tinkerer, inventor, movie buff, and video perfectionist Sam Runco is a graduate of the school of life.

Still, the name "Runco" dominates home theater's book of What's What. Runco's list of firsts is long: he was responsible for the first internal line-doubler in a video projector, the first aspect-ratio controller, the first 9-inch cathode-ray tubes in a consumer projector, the first corner-convergence controls, the first application of digital light processing for home theater. The list goes on, though the impression among some videophiles that Runco invented the lightbulb is false. That was another tinkerer, one whom Runco particularly admires and in whose example he sees a surprising lesson.

"I once did a lot of reading about inventors, and certainly Edison is perceived as the best," Runco explains. "He had a shingle that read: ‘thomas edison, inventions.' Now that's a pretty cocky shingle. But I've always believed that if Edison hadn't come up with the lightbulb, there would have been somebody right behind him to do it. That idea sort of knocks you off your high horse. But I feel comfortable that I brought good pictures into the home-theater arena—that I raised the bar. Just having a big picture was never enough for me."

To take in the big picture of Sam Runco, you have to take a big step back from that crisp, cheerful, debonair persona glad-handing the public and generally holding court each year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And you have to step back in time.

Runco, who is 52, chuckles at his public image—not because it's false, but because he can slip it on and off at will. "I'm the company front man at the trade shows," he says. "I play that role pretty well. Those double-breasted suits are my uniform. I don't dress like that every day. The places you're likely to find me are in the engineering lab or the mechanical shop. But I like being a spokesman. It's fun. I was always a talker."

Indeed, the casual observer might think Runco had read How to Win Friends and Influence People. That observer would be right. Dale Carnegie's crucial volume was, literally, Runco's first text in what has become a never-ending master's-degree program in the school of life. As an undergraduate—a kid growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania—Runco pored over the monthly issues of Popular Mechanics, Mechanics Illustrated, and Popular Science.

"My dad had a bar and restaurant, a coal-miners' bar that he built into a catering business, just outside of town," Runco recalls. "I used to spend a lot of time tinkering with things, and I'd buy all the mechanics and electronics magazines. They had a lot of basic mechanical ideas and a lot of futuristic crap, but it was good reading—you know, guys who invented their own flying machines. I got a pretty broad sense of mechanics that way. I built my own go-cart with an engine. I can make anything. My kids still come to me now."

Yet young Sam Runco saw neither engines nor video projectors as his life's calling. Where he saw himself was in the pages of Carnegie's book on creating a positive self-image. Runco says, "Look, I grew up in a coal-mining town. These guys were just trying to survive. My mom and dad were good parents. I was dealt a good hand. But I read in the Carnegie book that the ability to speak in front of people was a shortcut to distinction, and I responded to that."

In his early twenties, Runco took a job with a motivational training company, and that huckstering circuit—"it was a sort of con game"—led him first to Michigan, then to Seattle, Washington. He soon quit the motivational calling, only to find himself in San Francisco, unexpectedly transplanted to the walk-in cooler business. Perhaps it was, once more, the siren call of machinery.

In any case, the 22-year-old Runco was again tinkering with things, including televisions. Fiddling with a Fresnel lens in front of a 13-inch television, he projected a faint 6-foot picture onto a sheet pinned to the wall. From that moment, he says, "I never looked back." Or even sideways. Runco worked at refining his big-screen concept until he achieved what he felt was "a good picture." Then he began making projection television kits, selling them to local bars and through mail-order. By the late 1980s, when the home-theater vogue swept in, Runco was well ahead of the curve. He and his wife, Lori, formed the Runco company in 1987, and the next year they received a California trademark on the phrase "home theater."

Two key technical innovations in the space of little more than a year gained Runco a solid place—indeed, a cult following—at the forefront of the exploding home-theater scene. In 1991, Runco and his engineers introduced the first projector with a built-in line doubler. Then Runco hit upon what would become both a legendary product and an enduring concept: the ARC-IV aspect-ratio controller, which allowed users to switch picture shape from the 1.33:1 of normal television to one of three widescreen ratios. Those wider options of 2.35:1, 1.85:1, and anamorphic have become the standard aspects of home theater—which would seem to make Sam Runco some kind of visionary.

"I've had some quotes in the press on my vision," he muses, "and I don't know whether that's exactly the word for it. In the case of the aspect-ratio controller, there were four memory slots on the NEC controller I was using and I made an educated guess about which way home theater would go. Nobody can really see 10 years into the future. I guess vision is deduction plus some lucky breaks.

"But I also believe this thing called the sixth sense is finite and explainable. It's what happens when you sharpen the other five. You do something like [the aspect controller], and you do more than one, and you know you can keep on doing them. Those things—the aspect-ratio controller, the line doubler, some of the other things I've come up with—weren't flashes. They didn't come out of nowhere. I'm a tinkerer. It's what I love to do."