Patently Ridiculous

By Jeffrey Kluger|Tuesday, December 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: GADGETS
As far as I’m concerned, any aspiring tinkerer who wants to be a recognized inventor should be required to hire a publicist. Politicians and other gloomy Gusses are always complaining that Western innovators have lost their competitive edge, but if you ask me, what we’re really lacking is something much more fundamental: the talent for saying something memorable after we’ve innovated.

For millennia the world has been up to its flasks in madcap inventors, and not one of them has ever produced a good sound bite. Does anyone have any idea what Henry Ford said after building the first Model T? What Robert Fulton said after launching

America’s first successful steamboat? What Eli Whitney said after inventing the cotton gin? (Except, perhaps, Gin!)

Near as I can tell, the most electrifying inventor’s quote the average person can recall is Alexander Graham Bell’s less-than-stirring telephone message: Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you! The statement is easily one of history’s least colorful--though it might have seemed even less dramatic if textbooks had been allowed to print Mr. Watson’s reply, reported to be This is Mr. Watson. I can’t come to the experimental phone right now. . . .

Other rumored but unproven quotes include Orville Wright’s remarks after getting his first good look at the first complete airplane (Does that look like a bicycle to you, Wilbur?), Wernher von Braun’s moving declaration after the successful launch of the first V-2 rocket (That’s one small step for Übermensch), and Ben Franklin’s excited exclamation after flying his kite in a lightning storm (YOWWCHH!). It’s lack of imagination like this that’s had generations of inventors throwing up their hands and just shouting Eureka!--an ancient Greek expression translated loosely as Duck! It’s gonna blow!

What made the whole inventor issue newly salient to me was the announcement some months back that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was preparing to hold its National Inventors Expo in Washington, D.C. The expo is an annual event in which a few dozen lucky inventors who were awarded patents in the previous year are invited to the nation’s capital to gather in a convention hall, set up booths, display their wares, and try not to blow anything up. This year’s event was held at the Commerce Department’s Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium and featured 80 inventions, a lavish luncheon, and a speech by the country’s patent and trademark czar, Commerce Secretary Barbara Hackman Franklin. Though in recent years I’d avoided the expo-- convinced it was going to be all cold fusion, perpetual motion machines, and miniature calculators the size of Wheat Chex--I decided to take this one in, as much for reassurance as anything else. Even if American inventors were still inept in their oratory, I thought, it would be nice to make sure they were still adept in their laboratories.

Contrary to my expectations, when I arrived at the expo I saw nothing to distinguish it from any ordinary products fair. There were no lunatics in lab coats, no wild-eyed scientists muttering, I’ll show them, I’ll show them all! There was one fellow who was exhibiting what looked for all the world like the blueprints for a flying gravy boat, but I figured as long as I kept my distance I’d be all right. What did strike me after just a quick look around was that the number one thing on many inventors’ minds appeared to be, well, number two. Genius may be one part inspiration and two parts perspiration, but a lot of these folks were chiefly concerned with elimination.

Patent Number 5,148,465 was advertised as a Self-Cleaning Kitty Litter Box, and judging by the demonstration, it certainly lives up to its name. Invented by former tool-and-die maker Angelo Carlisi, a self- described putzing-around type person, the device consists of an ordinary, low-tech litter box equipped with a motorized rake at one end and a plastic drawer at the other. With a flick of a switch or a signal from a preset timer the rake dips into the litter, drags itself the length of the box, and deposits anything it collects into the drawer.

Carlisi was showing off his brainchild, sprinkling the litter with miniature Tootsie Rolls and Bit-O-Honeys and then setting the rake in motion. True to its billing, the box cleaned itself easily, leaving the litter free of unwanted confections in seconds. If you’re one of those lucky pet owners whose cat actually produces bite-size, individually wrapped candies, this invention is definitely for you. If, however, your personal litter box experiences have prepared you to expect not Bit-O- Honeys but Bit-O-Something-Much-Less-Pleasant, you may want to wait until Carlisi has conducted a little more product testing.

For two-legged candy producers like you and me, there is also Patent Number 5,040,249, the straightforwardly named Personal Commode, invented by former photojournalist Richard Diaz. The P.C., as Diaz calls it, is a ten-inch-high plastic-lined cardboard seat that can collapse to fit into a soldier’s or camper’s backpack and can be unfolded in seconds when the need to, uh, sit down arises. Afterward the plastic liner--which is impregnated with cornstarch so it can semibiodegrade--can be discarded, while the seat, which is also biodegradable, can be folded up and tucked away for the next sit. The P.C., you’ll be glad to know, can support up to 1,200 pounds. Now, I personally can’t imagine a 1,200-pound person sitting on a piece of cardboard to do his business, but then, I don’t have Diaz’s vision.

We started building these in our garage in 1989, he says, and donated some to a Red Cross group doing relief work after Hurricane Hugo. During the San Francisco earthquake they ordered more. By last year the P.C.’s were being used in the Gulf War. They’re now a regularly stocked federal item.

While Diaz certainly deserves applause for the design of the Personal Commode, I do think he needs to rethink the color scheme. The P.C. comes in two styles: in one, the cardboard portion of the product is an understated beige; in the other, it’s done up in a sort of military camouflage mottling, presumably to help it blend invisibly into the surrounding terrain. Now, I’m no Field Marshal Rommel, but if I came across half a dozen enemy soldiers flipping through Stars & Stripes while pantslessly perched atop invisible bits of surrounding terrain, I wouldn’t need an intelligence officer to tell me I hadn’t stumbled into the mess hall.

Among the other innovations for disposing of unmentionables was Patent Number 5,117,780, the Walk-Me-Not Self-Cleaning Pet Toilet. The Walk-Me-Not is a pressure-sensitive rolling platform that fits over the opening of a regular, non-self-cleaning human toilet and can detect when a pet--which has been platform-trained instead of paper-trained--has stepped on, done what biology demands that it do, and stepped off. The unit then triggers a spray to clean and flush itself, after which it is ready for the next family quadruped. A teensy, weensy drawback to the Walk-Me-Not is that once your undersized, overcrowded bathroom has been outfitted for your cat or dog, you might find rolling the device out of the way so you can use the facilities a tad inconvenient--especially if you’re in a hurry. Most pets, however, are happy to help out, pointing you to a wide range of alternative spots in the backyard or park, and even snickering cheerily while doing so.

Not all the inventions at the expo were as simple as the privy products; indeed, many involved some pretty elaborate technology. The Solar Mower, Patent Number 5,007,234, is a solar-powered robot lawn mower, about the size of a footstool, that can tell when the grass in your yard needs cutting and then set out to do the job itself, starting automatically, stopping automatically, steering automatically, and even automatically knocking off in the middle of the afternoon to listen to the Phillies game. The heart of the mower is a fuzzy-logic computer circuit attached to an underbody sensor that can tell when the grass around it grows beyond a predetermined height; when it does, the mower kicks into gear, feeling its way around the yard and trimming whatever unruly patches it finds, while skipping past flower beds, gravel walks, and driveways. Fuzzy logic is typically used in computer programs that don’t deal with exact quantities and precise calculations but rather with a lot of estimates and approximations--just what’s needed for distinguishing among different types of terrain.

The Solar Mower can cut an acre of grass in about four hours, says engineer Louis Shurman, who invented the device with his siblings Darlene and Gerald. And it does so without burning gasoline and without generating pollution.

There are problems, however, associated with the device. First of all, early models will sell for a cool $9,000--a lot for a machine that does a job Ricky and David Nelson used to do for 35 cents an hour. Second, the mower’s sensors have no way of knowing where your lawn ends and your neighbor’s begins, so unless you surround your yard with a border of mulch or gravel (or Shurman’s electronic signposts--a line of tasteful bar- coded lawn ornaments that look like little metal golf tees spaced a couple of feet apart), the mower will go on blithely cutting forever. Ultimately, this just confirms my long-held suspicion that fuzzy logic is actually science code for dumb. Frankly, if I’m going to buy a device capable of setting out on its own for a grisly 12-state mowing spree that can be stopped only by a total solar eclipse, I want it to at least sound smart.

Even more complicated than the Solar Mower is Patent Number 5,039,901, the Sudden Condensation Generator, designed by John Newbould, a former supervisor for the New York Power Authority who proudly spent 15 years keeping the lights on in Manhattan. The generator, he says, offers a new way to convert steam energy to electric energy. In his device, steam is injected into an enclosed chamber that is filled with cold water. The water causes the steam to condense suddenly, changing the hydraulic pressure in the chamber and deforming a piezoelectric crystal; the crystal, in turn, produces electricity.

The device sounded simple enough to me until I made the gigantic mistake of asking just how a piezoelectric crystal works. Newbould then began explaining how in certain crystals, those without a center of structural symmetry, the application of stress produces an electric dipole moment, one that is in fact proportional to the stress on the crystal. No fool, Newbould could tell right away that this was going over my head, mostly because I kept saying uh-huh, uh-huh as if I did understand while wearing an expression of such utter noncomprehension that Koko the sign- language gorilla would figure she’d better use smaller words. Newbould tried gamely to simplify things (The . . . MORE . . . THE . . . CRYSTAL . . . IS . . . STRESSED . . . THE . . . MORE . . . ELECTRICITY . . . YOU . . . GET!), but I eventually began nodding and grinning so surpassingly stupidly that we figured we’d best cut our losses and say good-bye.

Much more fathomable to me were the expo’s simpler, everyday inventions, the ones that cause you to ask aloud, Why didn’t I think of that? while angrily smiting your forehead (or, if the idea is a really good one, while angrily smiting the inventor’s forehead). Included in this list was Patent Number 5,033,132, invented by Herbert Greenblatt, a retired pattern maker for ladies’ clothing. One day, while watching his daughter trying to give his rambunctious grandchildren a bath, Greenblatt thought to himself: This would be a lot easier for her if the shower curtain weren’t constantly in the way. The result was the Roll-Up Shower Curtain, an ordinary-looking waterproof curtain that rolls up and out of the way like a retractable window shade. Greenblatt sees his product as a sure money- maker, and indeed, it seems the perfect gift for anyone on your list who’s a sloppy bather, a parent of small children, or the proprietor of the Bates Motel.

The high-teching of hygiene did not stop with Greenblatt’s invention. Perhaps my favorite of all of the expo’s items was Patent Number 5,030,405, Bruce Smith and Levonia Jones’s Soap Buster-Soap Chip Saver. Smith, who works as a supervisor for a major beverage company, had a dream one night about compressing dozens of tiny soap chips into a single full-size bar (talk about a guy with a clean subconscious), woke up the next day, and invented a mold that can do just that. Owners of the Soap Chip Saver would simply throw a month or two’s worth of soap remnants-- preferably different colors--into the mold, dip it in hot tap water for four or five minutes, tighten the lid, and let it cool. Out would come a brand-new, marbleized bar, ready to be used.

The only drawback to the Soap Chip Saver, as I see it, is Smith and Jones’s suggestion that the multicolored bars would make perfect gift items. Now, I wouldn’t see anything wrong with swapping soap-chip gifts with members of my immediate family, but if I got a birthday present from, say, the family of Commerce Secretary Barbara Hackman Franklin, and the card said Roses are red/Which is nicer than taupe/Have a really great birthday/ Now here’s our old soap, I would head for the exchange department.

Not surprisingly, some of the inventions at the expo had more serious drawbacks. Patent Number 5,088,072, for example, was proudly promoted as the world’s only digital lap counter built into an ordinary ring. When the promoter, Drew Fitzmorris, described this to me, my first reaction was that I have always had just one lap, and if I ever needed a digital counter to keep track of any extra ones, I’d be in more trouble than a simple ring could solve. Fitzmorris explained, of course, that the laps the ring is intended to count are the kind swimmers make in a pool and joggers make around a track. Just why a digital ring counter would do this job any better than similar wristwatch-type devices athletes have been using for years was unclear to me. Nevertheless, patent watchers are being urged to keep their eyes open for Fitzmorris’s upcoming products, rumored to include an elegant pair of oven-timer earrings and a handsome meat- thermometer brooch.

Also on display was Patent Number 5,033,375, a portable can crusher known as the Step Down. As the name suggests, the Step Down is a springlike device about ten inches high into which you’re supposed to insert an empty beverage can and onto which you’re then supposed to, well, step. This, you might not be shocked to learn, crushes the can. The Step Down, explains marketer Michael Rheaume, is for the person who is tired of getting a twisted leg from having a can fly out from under his foot whenever he tries to stomp on it.

Of course, I’m no fancy inventor, and I may be speaking out of turn here, but another, lower-tech answer might be: Quit stomping on cans! This solution, however, is apparently not an option for the Step Down inventors, who have even equipped their product with a handy belt clip so you’re ready to do a little crushing whenever the urge strikes. (In fairness, the folks for whom the Step Down is intended are environmentally conscious outdoors types who crush their cans for backpack storage until they can dispose of them. I suppose this makes sense, but sheesh! These people never heard of canteens?)

Of course, it’s impossible to describe all the inventions offered for consideration at the expo. If I had time, I’d discuss Patent Number 5,071,089, a pair of strap-on shoulder wings that allow skiers traveling fast enough to leave the ground for brief flights (a completely superfluous product for people like me who leave the ground whenever we ski, just never on purpose); or Patent Number 5,062,674, a portable party tray with a convenient handle that allows you to carry a drink and a plate of food with just one hand, leaving your other hand free to write a check to your host when you drop your Patent Number 5,062,674 on his new Oriental rug; or Patent Number 4,206,601, the Motion of the Ocean generator, an offshore power plant that can produce electricity, convert sea water to fresh water, manufacture hydrogen, reduce the destructive power of waves, and, in its spare time, resolve the Yugoslavian crisis and enroll in a twice-a-week sculpting class.

Whether any of these inventions will ever see the light of day is unclear. The cost of launching a product can be prohibitive, the competition fierce, and the appetite of the consumer fickle. While the history of the American marketplace is rich with such success stories as the Q-Tip, the Hula-Hoop, and the ubiquitous Post-it Note, it is also strewn with such ultimate flops as the Edsel, the 8-Track, and licorice chewing gum. Will any of the new patents join either of these lists? Are any of the new inventors destined for historic riches--or perhaps for historic embarrassment? All I can say is: Don’t Ask Me.
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