Chicago lawyer John F. Flannery, who obtained original patent for videotape recorder, dead at 92

It ‘turned out to be a major product for Ampex, and it started the television industry as we know it today,’ a retired partner in his law firm said.

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Attorney John F. Flannery.

Attorney John F. Flannery.

Fitch, Even, Tabin & Flannery LLP

Chicago lawyer John F. Flannery obtained the original patent for the first videotape recorder, which revolutionized TV by allowing live shows to be shared across time zones with images stored on magnetic tape instead of the lengthy processing required with film.

Mr. Flannery, who worked for nearly 60 years for the law firm Fitch Even Tabin & Flannery, died Saturday at his Park Ridge home, said his daughter Colleen Janesku. He was 92 and had been in declining health, she said.

In 1960, he’d been out of law school only about a year when he got the patent for Ampex Corp., where it was invented, “a huge first,” said Mark Hetzler, a managing partner at his law firm. 

Ampex drew some of its first notice for reel-to-reel tape machines, which Bing Crosby used to record radio shows and Elvis Presley used in recording his first single at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios: “That’s All Right.” 

The company unveiled the first videotape recorder in 1956 at a Chicago meeting of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters.

“Mr. Flannery was the one who wrote the patent and shepherded it through the U.S. patent office in Washington, D.C.,” said James Schumann, a retired partner at his firm. “It turned out to be a major product for Ampex, and it started the television industry as we know it today.”

Early Ampex videotape recorders were as big as a stove and cost more than $50,000. They allowed live East Coast shows — from news interviews to “American Bandstand” — to be broadcast at delayed times on the West Coast. And West Coast shows could be recorded and shown at viewer-friendly times on the East Coast, according to Hetzler.

Mr. Flannery also enforced the patent, going up against Sony in court and wresting licensing concessions from Sony and other industry players.

“They basically had to buy the rights to use the Ampex” videotape recorder, Hetzler said. “They paid the client, which resulted in worldwide licensing revenue.”

Before becoming one of the Midwest’s top intellectual property litigators, young John grew up on the Northwest Side, the son of Ella and Edward Flannery, Irish immigrants from Castlebar and Westport in County Mayo. His father was a Chicago police officer. 

After St. Genevieve grade school and DePaul High School, he got a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. He served stateside in the Army during the Korean War, his daughter said, and got his law degree in 1959 from Loyola University.

Mr. Flannery enjoyed mentoring young lawyers.

“He really loved to see the lightbulb go on in our thinking,” Hetzler said. “There are days I sit back and think, ‘How would John Flannery solve this problem?’ ’’

“When I was still a relatively junior associate, he let me argue. . . . to the federal appellate court of appeals,” said Tim Maloney, a partner in the firm. “His attitude was, I knew the issue better than anybody.”

His charisma and command of facts helped sway juries, Maloney said.

Mr. Flannery was elected a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He also served as a Lincolnwood village trustee, his daughter said.

Survivors include five children from his marriage to his first wife Marjorie: Colleen, Erin, Johnny, Brian and Michael. His second wife Catherine, who died in 2019, brought six daughters to their marriage, who also survive: Laura Beaudoin, Tina Holloway, Jenny Gordon, Barbara Rock, Paula Mack and Lisa Skowron. He had 19 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. 

Visitation is planned from 10 a.m. to noon Friday at Ryan-Parke Funeral Home in Park Ridge, with a funeral Mass at 12:30 p.m. Friday at St. Paul of the Cross Church in Park Ridge.

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