Earthquake Is Mother of Inventions

Times Staff Writer

With all the attention focused on earthquake preparedness after the Mexico City disaster, industrial designer Martin Smith was curious about what items were being marketed to help people survive a major temblor.

So Smith turned his curiosity into an assignment for the 14 members of his advanced product design class at the Art Center College of Design. He instructed the students to scour local emporiums for earthquake-related products. When they came back empty-handed, Smith was only mildly surprised.

“They went to hardware stores, electronics stores,” said Smith, who teaches one day a week and works other days for Charles W. Pelly Design Works in Agoura Hills. “There was really nothing out there. I just had a feeling people aren’t prepared, so private enterprise isn’t rising to the need. My suspicion was confirmed.”

The Real Purpose


That, however, left the field wide open for the true purpose of the exercise--to stimulate students to design their own products.

The students consulted with safety experts, engineers, scientists and others to determine what kinds of earthquake-related items were needed and submitted conceptual drawings of their ideas. To Smith’s delight, several students came up with ideas that he thinks are practical enough to be developed into marketable products.

Ian Laity, a 28-year-old Toronto native, is devising a temblor-activated system that will automatically shut off utilities if shaking is severe enough to cause structural damage to a building. He expects the system to sell for less than $300, and says he already has received some interest in it.

“I know a lot of people who say they’d really like to have it in their homes,” said Laity, who worked as a carpenter before entering Art Center.


Less Than $50

Another student, Rudy Petris of Whittier, is designing a pocket-size monitor to detect leaking natural gas. The monitor would sound an alarm when it senses unsafe gas levels. Petris, 23, said the idea came to him after he checked with the Southern California Gas Co. and discovered that the smallest gas detector on the market is a briefcase-size model used by gas company inspectors. The technology exists to build a much smaller device that could be used in the home and sell for less than $50, he said.

Gary Zuidema’s fruitless search for an off-the-shelf earthquake survival kit inspired him to design a compact, door-mounted, kit containing a flashlight, tools, water, batteries, first-aid supplies and the like. Occupants passing through the doorway could grab the kit on the way out of the building, said Zuidema, 24. Doorways also are more likely to remain intact because they have stronger structural support than regular walls, the Pasadena resident said.

Issac Zaksenberg went one step further. Zaksenberg, a 28-year-old former biology student from Tel Aviv, is working on an inflatable “personal protection structure” to protect people who might become trapped in large buildings. “It looks like a suit and could be stuffed in a locker in a high-rise building,” he said.

The unit would contain an accelerometer to alert people when a temblor begins. The vest-like garment would be outfitted with a water container and straw, and headgear with a mounted flashlight and a built-in microphone. If the building collapsed, carbon dioxide cartridges could be triggered to inflate the suit to three times its regular size to form a protective cushion between the wearer and material that might fall on him.

Other promising projects include a parka-like garment that contains a survival kit and a specially designed generator to turn automobiles into emergency power sources, Smith, 36, said.

Laity and Petris already have gone beyond conceptual drawings to work on scale models and the others plan to do the same, Smith said. He added that he is encouraging the students to find companies interested in manufacturing the finished product.

“Whenever we can come up with that kind of response that is wonderful,” Smith said.