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Inventions

The singing diaper, the AIDS-proof syringe, the see-through vehicle communicator, and other perfect ideas for an imperfect world.

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Tonight, I want to talk to you about the wind," announced Joe Perry. "Everybody has felt the wind, but how many of you have ever seen the wind? Don't go away."

About a hundred of us waited patiently in the gallery above the Archicenter Bookstore. The occasion was the recent Inventors Day Showcase, held by the Inventors' Council. Perry, a confident man somewhere in his early 50s, set up and plugged in his Wind Watcher. It was a little smaller than a guitar case. At one end was an arc of colored lights that represented wind speed; at the other was a cross of lights indicating wind direction. These were hooked up respectively to an anemometer and a weather vane.

"Now we're going to see the wind," Perry continued. "Since we don't have any wind in this room, we'll have to imagine that we're outdoors. I'm going to simulate it by turning this." As he gave the anemometer a spin, the arc of lights lit up, moving back and forth frantically. The same thing happened with the cross of lights when he flicked the vane.

"I'm aiming this at advertising," Perry explained. "You can always depend on the wind in Chicago, and people always want to know how fast it's going. Imagine this on a big signboard along with a beverage or beer ad. I call it intelligent advertising, because instead of asking you to just buy, buy, buy, it gives you something in return. Any comments?"

Someone asked, "Why don't you put it in Wrigley Field?"

Perry's face went blank for a moment. Above his head you could almost see the light bulb switching on.

"I like that," he answered, a slow, broad smile crossing his face.

Every year, sometime around Thomas Edison's birthday, the Inventors' Council holds an inventors' showcase, which both inventors and manufacturers can attend. There are no formalities, no lists to sign, no red tape. In the words of the council's executive director, Donald Moyer, to the assembled, "This evening's for you. Just fight your way to the front and show us what you got." Moyer, an imposing presence with his deep voice and full beard, peered into the audience and observed, "I don't see enough strange-shaped packages out there." He then laid down the only two rules of the evening: no inventor could try to sell his product while showing it, and each person must try to keep his presentation to about five minutes. "I will do what I can to regulate that. Fairly vigorously," he added ominously, wielding a long black-tipped pointer.

Fortunately no violent warnings were needed. There was a liberal spread of human types here, quickly debunking the myth of the weird inventor. Among the presenters were a trucker, a filmmaker, a couple of athletes, a former quality-control engineer, businessmen from various fields, and a woman who used to own a restaurant. Many of the participants didn't even bother to give their names; instead they opened their presentations with a story, a question, or both.

Sam G. Zaccone came to the front carrying a small brown package. "How many of you people like birds?" he asked. When nobody responded he went on. "Last year my neighbor gave me a peach tree, and I tied it to a stick in the ground to keep it growing straight. Well, along comes a mother robin and she starts grabbin' at some of the strands of string I'd used, and she'd fall backward on her behind trying to pull them out. So I told my wife, 'Let's watch,' and it took a long time for that old robin to finally give up. So I thought, there's gotta be a way of giving her some help, and this is what I came up with."

Zaccone pulled out what looked like a small blue birdhouse. But the round opening, instead of being empty, was filled with hundreds of short strands of string. "I was worried that the string would be expensive," Zaccone said, "but it only costs a few pennies for a bundle."

Worries about the cost of an invention kept popping up. Although finding things to do with inventions is one of the reasons Moyer founded the Inventors' Council, its primary goal is to link inventors with manufacturers--to their mutual profit and the public's benefit. "Inventors have a familiar refrain," says Moyer. "It goes like this: 'I've got an invention. There's nothing like it. Everybody needs one. What do I do now?' That's a fair question, so I thought, 'Why not invent a job for myself?' As you can see, I did."

A man named Woods showed his invention, a compasslike device that attaches to a car's steering wheel to simplify backing up a trailer. A soft-spoken man named Gary Robinson had developed a way to safely add more weight to the body while running. It was a weighted leopard-skin-patterned garment meant to be worn around the thigh. The invention's name? The G-belt, naturally.

Kevin Wanecka showed off a new type of syringe. "I keep reading the medical journals," Wanecka began, "and I follow what's going on with AIDS and the fear of contamination. There's a serious problem with needle stick in the medical area: people--nurses and doctors--sticking themselves after they've administered a drug with a syringe to the patient, and they don't know whether that person has AIDS." Wanecka then demonstrated his syringe, in which the needle is retracted into a plastic sheath after the shot is given.

Some of the inventors were a little bashful, but one who had no trouble was filmmaker Jack Chia, an energetic man in his mid-40s. His invention was an electronic device to prevent diaper rash. "I have three kids," he began, "and all the time they had diaper rash. Some of you may not be familiar with this, but it's painful and costly, and though medicines are available, it's after the fact. Scientists and doctors say to change diapers as frequently as possible. But how frequently is that? Nobody can define it.

"What I've come up with is a device that you attach, so when the diaper is wet it plays a song, and you hear that the baby needs to be changed." Chia got one wet and held it up, and strains of "Love Me Tender" drifted through the room. His tiny device, which weighs about three ounces, is connected to the diaper by a safety pin--it never even touches the baby's bottom. Chia seemed not to have considered the Pavlovian effects of his invention. When asked if he'd tried the thing on his own kids, he laughed. "Too late," he responded. "By the time I figured it out, they weren't in diapers anymore."

Bob Anderson, a pipe fitter, displayed an ingenious device: a cable system that could be used to lock up skis temporarily, as you might lock up a bicycle. After demonstrating how it worked by securing a pair of skis to a pipe against the wall, Anderson held up one of the cables and asked what it reminded people of. When there was no answer, he supplied one. "This cable has the colors of the Chicago Bears. These can be color coded for every city in the U.S. They can be color coded to every university and high school. I think of everything.

"I'm a runner, and when I'm in a marathon sometimes I think up 20 or 30 inventions. Wanna see a picture of JFK I drew when I was in high school?" Anderson reached into his bag, whipped out the portrait (it seemed to be drawn in pencil), and passed it around. It was pretty good. "This was drawn without any art lessons," he informed us. "Since then I've had art lessons, but I don't have any time to draw."

"Maybe you need an invention so you can draw while you run," someone in the fourth row said.

A bemused Moyer finally called time, but as Anderson pulled together his various cables and skis, he made one final comment: "I have one more deal. If I get people to take me in and sell my products, I've got a deal going that I'll ride all the way across America on a bike to raise money for the American Cancer Foundation."

During the ensuing applause a nattily dressed old German guy behind me whispered, "He's very patriotic."

A certain astonishment ensued as person after person revealed the perfect solutions to an imperfect world. Gregory Miller asked, "How many people find the highways and traffic in general to be getting worse and worse? I was coming back from Wisconsin, and on four separate occasions I had a requirement to ask the guy behind me to turn his brights off. I went home and thought about what I could do about it, and here's what I came up with." Miller, dressed in a dark blue suit and power tie, held up a thin clear-plastic shield that was about a yard in length and approximately five inches high. Ever so faintly you could make out an LED display. "What I have," he continued, "is a see-through vehicle communicator. It doesn't block your vision, and what you do with it is you put it in your rear window and you can communicate to vehicles in back of you."

There was a ripple of amused laughter. Some wit down in front wondered aloud whether it was bulletproof.

Miller held up his hands, urging everyone to quiet down. "I know what you're thinking, and I'll get to that. Anyway, for now say you're cruising along in traffic and someone--I know this sounds strange--but someone decides to let you in." Here Miller leaned down and flicked a switch, and the word "thanks" appeared on the communicator. He then ran through a few other scenarios and his machine's responses. If the guy behind you is driving like a jerk: "please." If you accidentally cut off the guy behind you: "sorry." If the guy behind you has his brights on: "brights."

"Now," Miller continued, rubbing his hands together, "custom words. There's a secondary product you can purchase called the vocabulary-expansion module. And that allows you to put in five of your own words." The audience giggled, knowing there must be some sort of catch. "But for those of you who might be tempted to put in something that's not a courteous message, the module includes a spell-checking program." The audience groaned in disappointment.

"Hey, I have to do this! Otherwise people will start shooting at each other, and that's not what I want. If you say 'screw off' to the guy behind you, you might get a bullet in your head. Anyway, there's a spell-checking program that contains 15 to 20 of the most common profane words, so if you try to enter these words, the message will read instead: 'love.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barbara Dietrick.

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