David Pelton Moore was 27 years old when he got the first of his 77 patents. He was 39 when Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I. He was 62 when he developed what he considers his most important invention. And he was 95 when he filed suit against the United States of America for using that invention without his authorization.

Moore is now 102, and although a decision is expected on his suit in the next few months, he is prepared, he says, to "see this through if I have to live to 107."

What Moore will get, if he wins, is millions of dollars, possibly tens of millions -- and recognition.

A retired patent attorney, Moore never worked in a laboratory, only in his basement. Like many other basement inventors who never worked in a corporation or government laboratory, he has had difficulty getting people to pay attention to him. Yet years before any corporate- or government-funded inventors came up with a workable solid rocket fuel, Moore claims he did -- in 1939. He also claims a fuel similar to his has been used in Sergeant and Nike missiles, in Polaris and Minuteman missiles, even in the space shuttle. And there are rocket scientists who agree.

William Arendale, now a chemistry professor at the University of Alabama, worked on and ultimately headed the development, under government contract, of precisely the rocket fuels that Moore says infringe on his patent. "There's no doubt in my mind," Arendale says, "that David Moore was the first to invent an elastomeric, castable, solid, composite propellant. Unless his patent is ruled invalid because of legal technicalities, I'm quite sure he'll win."

Perhaps no one was paying much attention to Moore in the days when he was trying to interest the government in his invention, but people in the Justice Department are paying attention to him now.

Moore has an air of a fin de siecle gentility. In his youth he lived in Paris, and with his waxed mustache, aristocratic dress, and a certain disdainful aloofness, he seems almost a character out of a Henry James novel. He expressess that aloofness and a respect for substance when he snorts: "You must remember, back in the early days lawyers weren't as smart as they are now. Now it comes down to whether it's a period, a semicolon or a comma."

Moore was born into a well-off family that lived three blocks from the White House. He says he met every president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, and that he knew Wilson well. Moore had access to . . . society.

But instead of being delicate, he is gritty. Instead of lolling in ennui and uselessness, he exudes a sense of vitality and productivity. Instead of being a dilettante, he does things.

His family has done things, too. His sister, Dr. Rosalind Bain, was one of the nation's first female dentists; his grandfather was quartermaster general of the Army in the Mexican and Civil Wars; his father, a physician, took walks with Abraham Lincoln.

As a youth Moore taunted police into chasing him by riding his horse on the White House lawn. Now at 102 his eyes sparkle with that wildness. His mind flashes and leaps. His inventions came to him like that, with a sudden coupling of seemingly unrelated concepts. Logic entered only into the perfection of his ideas.

He has no love for the tedium of routine. He never got rich. Marketing was not fun, only inventing was, and his marketing efforts usually were limited to writing a letter or two. He did not really try, for example, to sell his first patent, in 1904, for the cardboard tabs in milk bottles. No dairy used them until his patent expired. Nor did he make much money from his 1916 telephone receiver, nor from his several patents on artifical fur, nor from his patents that covered the binding of rubber to carpets to prevent slipping, nor from his 1966 method to record sound directly on Polaroid film, nor from his 1968 hybird electric car.

But unlike most of Moore's 76 other patents, his development of a rocket fuel is a chronicle of persistence. It begins about 1905, when Moore invented an explosive, and then licensed an early explosives expert and friend named Manuel Himalaya to make and sell it to mining companies. Himalaya set up two factories, in England and Portugal, but in 1912 the English factory blew up. No one was killed, but Himalaya was disturbed enough to close the Portuguese factory. One component of the explosive was susceptible to spontaneous combustion during processing. Moore tried to find a replacement. He failed, filed the problem in the back of his mind, and went on with his life.

Through the 1920s and '30s Moore did well. He moved to Long Island and served as patent counsel to the General Talking Picture Corporation. He continued to invent -- gadgets, film technologies, textile machinery and chemical products.

In 1939, at age 62, Moore was working in his basement with latex -- rubber suspended in water.

"I wanted to get a rubber paint," he says, and to improve the binding of rubber under mats.

World War II had just begun.Destruction was on everyone's mind, and Moore was still thinking about his 27-year-old explosives problem. Latex is largely hydrogen and carbon, which, when combined with oxygen, can be made to explode. Suddenly he realized rubber could replace the dangerous hydrocarbon he had used before!

"This happened on a Saturday night. I had the latex and the starch. Starch was a big thing. I was the first one to use starch in an explosive [in 1905]. Starch took the water out of latex. All I lacked was an oxygen-supplying agent. The drugstore was a quarter-mile from home. I snuck out. It was a beautiful moonlit night. I asked for sodium nitrate. 'I don't have it,' the clerk said. 'Could you use potassium chlorate?' So I did. I mixed it that night. You can't imagine how I felt that Sunday when I came down and found it all dry. I knew how important it was! I knew I had it!

"Then I typed the specifics for a patent. Monday I had it notarized. This thing I could see was the most important patent I ever handled."

After a few months' more work, Moore delivered a sample to the Bureau of Explosives, which tests new explosives before allowing them to be transported. William McKenna, the chemist who tested it then, still remembers: "I had never in my experience [seen] this type of explosive.It took some investigating just to assure that our apparatus would be adapted to it. It had a lot of possibilities."

Moore did not get those test results until early 1942. The country was at war; he took his invention to the Navy. "I love my country," he said, "I wanted her to have it." But there was a civilian looking on with the Navy officers. "I asked if he was a dollar-a-year man from Du Pont. They said, Yes. I turned around and walked out because I knew Du Pont would steal it. I would never trust a Du Pont man."

Then to protect himself, Moore applied for a patent. The application was denied; Moore was told his invention was an obvious development from match heads and, ironically, from early Himalaya patents that Moore himself had worked on.

Moore argued for four years over his application, insisting the invention was as important as dynamite. Were they fools? It was a universal explosive. Depending on how he treated the rubber, he could get granules, thin sheets, even a solid mass of explosive.

"They had," he now says, "examiners who didn't know their cases."

In 1946 Moore sent a sample to the Bureau of Mines; they found it had 46 percent the power of TNT, yet was absolutely safe to make and handle. Armed with this report from a second government agency, Moore dropped his 1942 application and filed a new one.

Meanwhile, the war, and German V-1 and V-2 missiles, had pointed the way to the future -- rocketry -- and the United States was racing the Soviet Union to get there first. Moore prepared some of his explosive for use as a rocket propellant.

Propellants at the time were mostly liquid, but solids had advantages -- liquids had to be pressured or pumped and only the most volatile and dangerous liquids were more dense and delivered more power per volume.

Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and at the Aero-Jet Corporation were looking for a suitable solid fuel, one that could be poured and that then would solidify. Aero-Jet had already produced an asphalt-based booster rocket to help get aircraft off carrier decks, but at low temperatures asphalt cracked; at high temperatures it melted. Other solids cracked when the heat of burning made them expand.Cracking was a serious problem: it exposed more surface to burning, causing a sudden surge of power that made a rocket unstable. An elastomeric fuel -- one that would stretch and not crack was needed.

Six years after Moore developed his latex-based fuel, Aero-Jet also tried latex, but used a different process. Instead of getting a liquid that would solidify, they got sticky granules. When they tried it in a rocket; the rocket exploded.

Charles Bartley, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab, knew of Aero-Jet's efforts with natural rubber and began looking into synthetics. In late 1946 he found one that worked -- Thiokol, named for the company that made it. Thiokol Corporation would soon become the major supplier of a family of propellants called rubber-based. But they didn't quite have it yet. f

In 1939 Moore had been seven years ahead of the government-funded laboratories.In 1948 he was 71 years old, and despite the millions of dollars, the dozens of scientists and the many laboratories that the government had employed, he was still in the race for a usable rocket fuel. That year he delivered a sample to the Navy for testing. The Navy sent the sample to the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. Testers there knew little about rubber-based propellants; such fuel was too new. They treated "Moorite," as the Navy called it, exactly as they treated a completely different family of propellants called double base -- a nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose mix dervied from gunpowder. The test results did not show Moorite at its best but still were encouraging enough to merit "further consideration." More importantly, the staff at Picatinny sent the report to no less than 43 government contractors and laboratories, including Dupont, General Tire and Rubber (which by then had taken over Aero-Jet) and Thiokol.

Meanwhile, Moore had given up arguing over his 1946 patent application and had filed a new one, in 1949. He waited for the Picatinny test report to strengthen it. And waited. And waited.

The report had been classified secret. Moore had no clearance; he got no copy. When a top-secret 1951 summary of the state of the art listed Moorite as one of 10 elastomeric propellants to be considered for possible use, Moore was still waiting. He was only to find out 19 years later that his invention was so well received, and then only through his own perseverance.

In the early 1950s Moore's second wife and also his sister's husband died. So Moore left his long-time job with General Talking Pictures and moved back to Washington to live with his sister in 1954. He was in his 70s but hardly ready to retire. And one thing stuck in his mind -- his rocket fuel. Seeing it go unused frustrated him; it could do so many things.

For example, cured one way it could be an excellent mining explosive because its fumes are not toxic. So Moore talked with Joshua Evans, a prominent Washington banker, and John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers. The UMW decided to finance production. Moore took another trip to the patent office to file a new application. Hoping to avoid another battle with patent examiners, he limited the claims simply to a mining explosive.

The patent office promptly closed the books on the venture by classifying the application secret. Because patents must, by definition, be in the public domain, the secret stamp meant Moore's invention wasn't patentable. "I was a little bit frustrated,' he says, "but I felt it was a rule, and we have to live according to the rules."

In 1955 Moore was 78 years old, with more than 50 patents to his name. Why didn't he simply give up and rest?

"A lot of people in the patent office were waiting for me to die. But I never let go of it. Never. Never. You must remember, when you invent something it is like an infant to you. I had love for this stuff."

Because the patent office had refused to patent even his limited claims for a mining explosive, Moore broadened them again to include rocket fuel. In 1962 he located the Navy officer to whom he had delivered the sample that went to Picatinny. The officer sent him, finally, a copy of that test report. And in 1965, Moore got a patent. It was not enough for him, and he immediately asked for a reissue patent. Before reissuing a patent, the patent office thoroughly reexamines everything in it; a reissue patent usually stands up better in court. In 1966 Moore got that.

So David Pelton Moore finally was ready to go to war. He was 89 years old.

There is a larger, more critical issue here. The patent system, the big laboratories and the way they are funded, may be preventing some technological advances by both squeezing out private individuals and by limiting research inside the corporate, academic and government laboratories. Barret Hazletine, an engineering professor and dean at Brown University, estimates he spends one hour writing proposals to fund every two hours of research and thinks that is typical. Worse, Hazletine says, a new idea, something really new, has the least chance of being funded.

"How," asks William Arendale, "do we take advantage of what everybody knows? . . . Innovation in technology today requires not only an idea but funds to develop it and entrepreneurial ability to sell it. You don't have a solution until it's widely accepted." He adds that all the money is in corporate, academic or government labs. "At the same time people in those labs don't give credit to people outside, even if an outsider has an idea. We even have a name for it. We call it NIH -- not invented here."

Moore exemplifies the problem an outsider with an idea has and how times have changed. Early in this century he had an inferior product -- his first explosive. He had no trouble getting a patent or setting up two factories, one of which blew up.Forty years later he had a vastly superior product. It took him four separate applications, innumerable changes within each application, and a quarter of a century to get a patent. Yet he never could exploit it, because at first no one would listen and later because of government interference. When he finally got a patent in 1966, it was too late to exploit it commercially.

So he began to prod the government and wrote letters to the Navy, Air Force, Army and NASA, asking for compensation. Legally he didn't need to show that anyone had stolen his ideas, only that they had used them, nor did he have to show that the propellants used were identical to his patent. The doctrine of equivalency, well established in patent law, says that if something does essentially the same thing in essentially the same way with essentially the same result, there is infringement. But one by one, the last in 1968, his claims were denied. Then Mike Rossnan began to help him.

The two had met in a Silver Spring barbershop in 1964, when Rossnan was in his 30s and in charge of the seafood departments at Giant markets. Now he owns a crab-processing factory and also sells crab-processing machines. As a boy Rossnan had lost his father. While Moore had outlived three wives, he had no children. They became immediate and fast friends. When Moore's sister died, he moved in with Rossnan and his wife Barbara. In 1976 Moore adopted them both.

Rossnan, himself holder of half a dozen patents that Moore helped him get, can be a fierce man, intense and cynical. He has immense respect for Moore and says, "There's a lot of grazing animals out there who do nothing but eat and sleep . . . Then there are people like David who build civilizations." The only thing wrong with Moore, Rossnan believes, is that "David thinks the world is a good place, that the government would do the honorable thing."

To prove his case, Moore needed information about the chemistry of the rocket propellants that only the government could supply. So he asked the government for it.

"We went through all the channels," Rossnan says disgustedly. "We were denied all along the line. How do you prove something when everything you ask, the government says, "'That's classified'?"

If Moore was willing to prod genteelly, Rossnan was not. In 1970 he called Chuck Hamel, who was Sen. Mike Gravel's top assistant and who earlier had worked for Sen. Thomas Dodd, Lyndon Johnson and others.

"I was curious about one thing," Hamel says, "if David's invention was as far off as everybody was saying, why did they classify his 1955 patent application?"

Hamel had access that a private citizen did not. He met with the director of the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins in Laurel, which was by far the most important repository of relevant information on rocket propellants. The director got out a copy of the Picatinny report. It had more pages than Moore's copy, including a distribution list of 43 laboratories and contractors. Hamel's eyes widened when he saw that list. He wanted to copy it. He was refused permission. Heatedly. Hamel tore off the pages and walked out.

"Later," Hamel laughs, "they accused David of having classified documents."

But even with Hamel's help, information only trickled in. Despite persistent efforts, Rossnan and Moore had hit a stone wall. Even their one ally, Hamel, could help no longer. It was 1971 and he was leaving the Hill to become a consultant. His advice: sue. The legal process of discovery was the only way to get the information.

The next year Moore talked with the alumni director of George Washington Law School, Moore's alma mater, about the school's taking on his case for half the award. When nothing came of those talks, Rossnan became discouraged. They had too little evidence; he gave up the hunt.

Moore did not. In 1973, at 95, he typed out a suit against the United States of America. Rossnan found out about the suit when Moore got a letter from the Court of Claims. "I was hurt that David hadn't told us, but more because of all the mistakes on the forms. David couldn't see very well anymore. Sometimes when he typed he was off a whole day. It looked like a crank case. I felt if they were going to shoot him down, he could at least go down with dignity. I became David's eyes and read to him. We went through boxes of documents, and he'd say, 'Yes, Mike, that's important.' A friend put the forms in proper order."

Rossnan pauses for a moment and presses his lips together. His voice hardens. "Then when I looked at it more closely, I thought, 'Maybe we have something after all.'"

The government's first attorney was Martin Avin. Avin was impressed with Moore, but "at that early stage their claim was far from being legally sound. What I recommended was, NASA had the right to give someone an award [which includes an honorarium] for advancing rocketry. If I could apply to NASA for him, they could give it to him."

That was in 1975. Avin had seen only the patent, the Picatinny report and the distribution list. Moore's case improved dramatically later. Perhaps there could have been a settlement, but Avin retired after a heart attack. Moore's relations with the Justice Department were not friendly, or even professionally courteous, again.

The government's case under Robert Plotkin, and later Paul Luckern, who replaced Plotkin early in 1978, moved on two fronts: first, to get the case dismissed without a full trial and, second, apparently to avoid the discovery process -- the legal process in which each side asks for evidence that the other holds.

Three weeks after Plotkin took over from Avin, Moore's first attorney, hired on a contingency basis, withdrew. Within a week, Plotkin called Moore.

"His manner," Moore says, "was unpardonable and insulting. He said he was coming over to the house with dismissal papers [for Moore to sign]."

At a pre-trial hearing, Plotkin told the judge, Joseph Colaianni, that Moore's patent was missing procedural elements and therefore was invalid. An enraged Rossnan then stormed into the patent office, demanding to see Moore's file. The missing parts had been lost and were found in a fold in the patent application.

Next, Plotkin convinced the judge to hold a separate trial limited to the issue of abandonment, claiming that because Moore had made his invention no later than 1942, but had not filed an application until 1955, he had lost his rights. At that time, August 1976, Moore lacked proof that he later found of his 1942, 1946 and 1949 applications.

Moore was in trouble and he knew it. The trial was going badly. Moore lost confidence in his second attorney and went to another firm which had a lawyer on the staff with a Ph.D. in chemistry -- Paul Meiklejohn. Meikejohn, however, had no trial experience.

Moore won the abandonment trial, but it was a hollow victory. The government still blocked discovery and still held almost all the evidence. Moore's attorneys knew if they went to full trial then, they would lose. So they asked for postponements, and more postponements. The Justice Department asked for dismissal because of "failure to prosecute."

The Applied Physics Laboratory, where much of the relevant information was stored, had released almost none because of advice from Plotkin and the Navy's patent attorney. The Navy attorney told APL in January 1976 that it could ignore Moore's request for rocket fuel information since 1939 and only provide data since Oct. 22, 1966, when Moore received his patent. The case was crippled without the early data. Moore's attorneys complained to the judge, but the government said finding the documents would be "burdensome."

Then Moore got lucky. A worker at APL thought Moore was "getting screwed. There's no doubt the old man had ideas, and no doubt the government had access to them. . ." The worker leaked a series of memos to Moore that he felt documented the government's evasion.

Soon Moore got another break. He learned that Plotkin had gotton some information from the National Archives. He and Rossnan went there. At first they were denied access because the material was still classified, but the archivist looked at the 100-year-old Moore and finally said, "Hell, the Justice Department guy didn't have clearance either. You can see what he saw." Moore and Rossnan spent days there and found some key data.

Meanwhile, copies of the memos leaked from APL were making the rounds. Rossnan had shown them to Chuck Hamel and asked for advice. Hamel and Moore write letters to Walter Flowers, an Alabama congressman and member of the Judiciary Committee and a friend of Hamel, to Griffin Bell, then attorney general, and to James Fallows, then President Carter's chief speech writer. The letters asked for an independent investigation of the Justice Department's handling of the case. (An investigation, a Justice Department spokesman now says, did occur and found "no basis to take any action.")

Moore's attorneys used the memos as well, presenting them to the judge, who was not amused. The Justice Department's motion to dismiss the case because of delay was denied, and Justice was ordered to comply with discovery. Paul Luckern, by now the Justice attorney, released much information. Meiklejohn wanted to visit several facilities to find additional documents. Luckern refused.

Meiklejohn went to the judge. The judge ruled definitively for Moore, and Meiklejohn visited APL and other sites. He found documents that supposedly did not exist.

Soon Moore's attorneys had the information they wanted. More importantly, they had found the particular expert they wanted -- William Arendale. Not only had Arendale headed the development of the government's rubber-based propellants, but he was knowledgeable about other types of fuel.

When first contacted, Arendale was leery. He assumed it was a crank case. Then he read the patent: "It just seemed inconceivable. These things so characterized solid propellant art that I just honestly could not believe they existed in 1939."

Arendale agreed to testify.

The trial was nearing. Tension grew. "I think," Arendale said after being questioned by Luckern, "it was the first time he realized his experts would be contested . . . Let's put it this way, there were feelings after that meeting. I do know inquiries were made about me around Huntsville . . ."

In November 1978, nearly 40 years after Moore had invented his "universal explosive," he and the United States of America were ready for trial.

"This is what life's about," Rossnan says. "The fight, the challenge.Not to give up. You know how many years David's been hawking about this? The perseverance of the man? We never had any evidence. We had a bunch of papers that made no sense until it was put together with what the government had."

The courtroom is like any other. Lush wood. Flags. Counsel tables. There is no jury. Money is involved, lots of money, but Moore says he doesn't care about that. Years earlier he had offered to settle in return for $20,000 and credit as the inventor; the offer was dismissed as that of a crazy old man.

There is a young man involved, too. It was Meiklejohn's first trial. He had switched to a New York law firm; a senior member of the firm had planned to help him but a snowstorm prevented his appearance. So Meiklejohn was alone.

The questions quickly boiled down to two: first, are the polysulfide, synthetic rubber propellants equivalent to Moorite, which is made with natural rubber?

Al Camp, the key government expert who had advised the government since the inception of the case and who sat with Luckern at the counsel table, was testifying. Meiklejohn asked: "In other words . . . would [Moorite] be the first elastomeric solid composite propellant -- if it [worked]?"

"I believe so," Camp answered.

The second question, then, was: Would Moore's propellant work?

Arendale said it would. Five government experts said it would not. But it quickly became apparent that Arendale was the only expert with expertise in the chemistry of rubber-based propellants. The chemist for the government admitted, "I am not familiar with polysulfide polymer systems," which were exactly what the trial was about. Another government expert, who had been Arendale's boss at Thiokol, readily agreed he was an engineer, not a chemical engineer, and that his responsibility was for the rocket motor while Arendale's was for "propellant chemistry development."

Only Al Camp, of the government experts, was a propellant chemist -- but Moore's side thought Camp knew little about rubber-based propellants. Camp had, in fact, changed his testimony from the earlier abandonment trial because his experience, he said, "was with an entirely different kind" of fuel -- double-based -- "and [I] was incorrectly inferring from that."

Moore's side felt Camp had been unfairly comparing Moorite's thrust to double-base fuels, to prove it wouldn't work.Yet another government witness already had said that even with less thrust the rubber-based fuels, like Moorite, gave better performance than double-base fuels because they can use lighter motors.

After the trial Arendale said, "I don't know what Mr. Camp was trying to prove. You can't compare those figures. Double-base and castable elastomerics like Moorite are apples and oranges."

The night the trial ended, Moore, Mike Rossnan, Barbara Rossnan, Hamel and Arendale went to a restaurant. To celebrate. Crabs were devoured. Liquor flowed. Moore had just turned 101. Suddenly Rossnan turned to him and said, "We won, didn't we?"

The case continues. Not until last month were a series of briefs and rebuttals completed. Sometime in the next few months Judge Colaianni is expected to decide the case.

If Moore wins he will get as much as 10 percent of all the money the government has spent on the propellants he says are infringed. That accounting will take more years. A settlement would probably precede it. Moore plans to use half of any award to set up a foundation to help individual inventors. People, he says, not corporations, invent.

He was talking about that at his 102nd birthday party last November. Dressed as always in finery, be began to entertain. His eyes flashed. He recalled his birthday party in 1884. The Democrats had just elected Grover Cleveland and were parading past his house on Pennsylvania Avenue with roosters on top of poles -- "the first time the cock had crowed in 24 years."

One birthday present -- mustache wax -- recalled that past. Another -- a Playboy calendar -- was very much the present. Everyone was in good humor. There was dinner, then dessert. It was, of course, a cake. On it was a rocket roaring toward the stars.Moore looked at the cake, at the rocket on it.

"Yes," he said, "that's my invention."