The little man from San Diego had a gizmo in his back pocket. Michy Greenberg and Leonard Holtz had theirs in briefcases.
Everyone else had gizmos--or thingamajigs or whatchamacallits--on the mind.
The 22 men and five women were members of, or prospective recruits for, the Inventors Workshop International Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that encourages, counsels and consoles inventors.
Offers a Challenge
The San Fernando Valley chapter of the Camarillo-based foundation was meeting in a Panorama City bank.
“Pick my pocket, just try,” the guy from San Diego dared his neighbors.
They couldn’t. Some kind of gizmo on the wallet snagged the pocket lining.
Score one for the tinkerers.
There is always the chance, of course, that someone else in the crowd was secretly perfecting an “anti-pickpocket-thwarter” device. That is the way invention has progressed. The spear gave rise to the spear thrower, the auto to the autobahn , artificial fibers to no-cling static repellents. As surely as the hip led to the Hula Hoop, every advance seems to need another advance to counter, enhance or decorate it.
That’s just fine with the inventors, who want the work. Patent rights, sometimes won only after hard haggling with the U.S. Patent Office, last only 17 years, which the assembled inventors appeared to regard as an injustice on a par with the poll tax.
Despite the stereotype of Tom Swift and His Wonderful Electric Yardstick, these were not precocious youngsters. Almost all appeared to be downstream from 50.
Beer at 30 Yards
Some already had sizable resumes. David Boyd of North Hollywood, who dreams up unlikely artifacts for entertainers, claimed credit for the “beer gun,” which fires a stream of beer for comic effect. Powered by the natural effervescence of agitated beer, the gun can drench a tolerant audience member “at 30 yards,” he said.
“Forty yards if you warm the beer first.”
The audience had come to hear Greenberg and Holtz (“local heroes,” one listener described them) recount their successes.
Greenberg, a Sherman Oaks office efficiency consultant, says he and his wife make about $20,000 a year inventing things for babies, inspired by the needs of their own toddler, Minda.
Greenberg markets a diaper-like seat liner for baby strollers, and Bibwypes, a reusable/disposable washcloth/bib. A device that looks like the brim of a large hat with no crown keeps shampoo from running into baby’s eyes. Coming up: a spoon that talks to baby, saying things like “open wide, here comes food.”
Greenberg is chairman of the workshop, which meets once a month, to which members can bring ideas, designs or models for critiques by their fellows.
To ease fears that some colleague may rip off the design of, say, a solar-powered cat litter tray and beat them to the patent office, workshop meetings are open only to members, who must sign a pledge of secrecy. Greenberg explained with a straight face to prospective recruits: “If you ever breathe a word outside the workshop about another member’s work, we cut your hands off.
“It must work,” he added. “In 19 years, that’s never happened.”
Sometimes a Profit
Holtz said he made $75,000 off the licensing rights to a clamp he invented for steel milling lathes, and “could have made $750,000" if he had known enough to get a lawyer to write the contract instead of trying to do it himself.
He passed around an example, a slightly curved piece of yellow-painted steel about the size of a small child’s shoe, with a cylindrical doohickey nestled into one side and holes here and there. Doubtless a thing of wonder to lathe operators, it is an object as incomprehensible to the uninitiated as something found in an archeological dig on Mars.
Holtz’s home is so filled with gadgets--mirrors bounce infrared rays down a corridor to control a VCR in another room--that it has starred in TV shows, he said. He turned a metal finish that gives off twinkling reflections, which he noticed rock musicians using for “psychedelic” decorations, into a popular fishing lure.
He is working on a spray can that will work upside down, moved by his wife’s complaints while trying to clean a toilet with an uncooperative cleaner.
The life of an inventor is not all “Eurekas!” and royalties, both warned.
Patent examiners can lay waste months of work. Holtz complained that his reversible, wet-or-dry-weather bicycle brake was rejected for bearing a minor similarity to brakes on Japanese freight cars. His machine to generate random numbers--just the ticket for state lotteries--had been patented in Norway in 1927.
Eighth Grade Too Tough
Greenberg said he designed a game geared to eighth-grade mathematics “and found out that only three Americans in 100 could play it--we aren’t a literate enough nation anymore for eighth-grade games.”
Future sessions, the audience was promised, will include presentations by an electronics designer (“I have a plan for electronic wind chimes,” someone commented) and “the man who invented the ant farm.”
As they left the room, the little man from San Diego did his number on Holtz, the canny mechanic.
“Go ahead, pick my pocket,” he dared him.
Holtz tried and failed. He peeked into the pocket and eyeballed the device. Smiling, he tried again, shifting his grip.
The wallet popped out like bread from a toaster.
Back to the drawing board.